Oregon v. Mitchell

Facts of the Case

Petitioner state governments invoked the court’s original jurisdiction to challenge the constitutionality of amendments to the federal Voting Rights Act, claiming that the statute usurped powers reserved to the states to control their own elections. The statute lowered the minimum age of voters from 21 to 18, and temporarily prohibited the use of literary tests based on a finding by Congress that the tests were to discriminate against voters on account of their color. The statute also barred respondents from disqualifying voters in national elections because of state residency requirements. Petitioners and supporting amici curiae argued that Congress lacked the powers to enact the statute. Respondent federal government and supporting amici curiae argued that a constitutional amendment gave Congress authority to enforce the provisions of that amendment by appropriate legislation.


Does the Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970 infringe on the rights the Constitution reserves for the states?


Yes in part and no in part. Justice Hugo L. Black delivered the opinion of the 5-4 majority. The Court held that Congress had the power to enact the amendments that changed the voting age for federal elections, abolish literary tests at the polling station, and abolish state residency requirements for presidential and vice presidential election. However, the Court held that lowering the voting age for state and local election was beyond Congressional purview.The Court held that the Framers intended for Article I Section 4 of the Constitution and the Necessary and Proper Clause to grant the States the power to make the laws that govern elections and for Congress to have the power to alter the laws if necessary. The Court also held that the legislative history surrounding the enactment and enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments support the role that Congress plays in preventing racial discrimination in the electorate without denying the states their rights. Without evidence that the states use the 21-year-old voting requirement to discriminate based on race in state and local elections, Congress does not have the right to intervene. The Court held that the literacy test bans were constitutional under the enforcement clause of the Fifteenth Amendment.Justice William O. Douglas concurred in part and dissented in part. He disagreed with the majority’s ruling in regards to reducing the voting age in state and local elections. He argued that, because voting is a “fundamental right,” which Congress ensures under the Equal Protection Clause, Congress could legislate voting age at the state level as well as the federal.Justice John M. Harlan concurred in part and dissented in part. He agreed with the majority’s opinion that Congress could prohibit literacy tests but disagreed on the issue of Congress’ ability to impose regulations on voting age and state residency requirements. He argued that the legislative history surrounding the Fourteenth Amendment supported the preeminence of the right of the states to legislate voting. Since the Constitution does not explicitly grant Congress the right to legislate voting requirements, the right is reserved to the states. Without evidence that people between 18 and 21 and people who do not meet state residency requirements are being unconstitutionally discriminated against, Congress cannot intervene.Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., Justice Byron R. White, and Justice Thurgood Marshall authored an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. They disagreed with the majority’s opinion that Congress cannot legislate voting age in state and local elections. They argued that, while the states have the right to determine qualifications for voting, Congress has the right to legislate the exercise of this power under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Since 18-year-olds are treated as full adults under other aspects of the law, there is evidence that 18- to 21-year-olds are being denied voting rights to which they are entitled, and Congress has every right to intervene.Justice Potter Stewart also wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. He disagreed with the majority’s opinion that Congress could legislate voting laws in federal elections. He wrote that the Framers clearly intended the right to legislate voting to be reserved for the states and that the Constitution does not allow Congress to supersede that right without a compelling interest. He argued that the age qualification did not represent a compelling interest to allow Congress to enact legislation on the issue.

Case Information

  • Citation: 400 US 112 (1970)
  • Argued: Oct 19, 1970
  • Decided Dec 21, 1970