Minor v. Happersett

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21 Wall. (88 U.S.) 162 (1875), argued 9 Feb. 1875, decided 9 Mar. 1875 by vote of 9 to 0; Waite for the Court. The Supreme Court held that a state could constitutionally forbid a woman citizen to vote, despite her invocation of the citizenship and privileges or immunities clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Guarantee Clause (Art. IV, sec. 4); the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and the prohibition against bills of attainder (Art. I, sec. 9). Noticeably absent from this list, to a modern eye, are the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The case is important as near- contemporary interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment's original intent. It is notable for its narrow definition of citizenship “as conveying the idea of membership of a nation, nothing more” (p. 166) and for its firm, unanimous rejection of the Fourteenth Amendment as a source either of a substantive federal suffrage right or of a federal limit on state control of the franchise. Otherwise, neither section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment nor, later, the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments would have been necessary. “Certainly,” the Court declared, “if the courts can consider any question settled, it is this one. … The Constitution, when it conferred citizenship, did not necessarily confer the right of suffrage” (p. 177). This interpretation was substantially, albeit tacitly, abandoned in Reynolds v. Sims (1964) and Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections (1966).

Ward E. Y. Elliott

Subjects: Law.

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