384 U.S. 641 (1966), argued 18 Apr. 1966, decided 13 June 1966 by vote of 7 to 2; Brennan for the Court, Harlan and Stewart in dissent. A majority upheld a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 stipulating that no person who had successfully completed the sixth grade in an accredited Puerto Rican school was to be denied the right to vote because of an inability to read or write English. The Court in 1959 had upheld state power to impose a fairly administered literacy test. Speaking for the Morgan majority, however, Justice William Brennan held that the earlier precedent was not the measure of congressional, as opposed to judicial, power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee. Congress, declared Brennan, need have only a rational basis for its laws; and Congress could reasonably have concluded that the challenged provision would help to eliminate discriminatory treatment in access to public services. Justice John M. Harlan charged in dissent, however, that the Court had already decided that a literacy test did not violate the Constitution and that, while Congress had broad discretion in choosing the means for enforcing the equal protection clause, its substantive scope, like that of other constitutional guarantees, was ultimately a question for the courts, not the legislature. If Congress could expand on the Court's interpretations of constitutional rights, Harlan concluded, it could also restrict the content of such guarantees.
Tinsley E. Yarbrough