286 U.S. 73 (1932), argued 7 Jan. 1932, reargued 15 Mar. 1932, decided 2 May 1932 by vote of 5 to 4; Cardozo for the Court, McReynolds in dissent. After Reconstruction, the Democratic party dominated southern politics. A Democratic primary victory was tantamount to an election; therefore, state laws barring blacks from participation in primaries were an effective disfranchisement. In Nixon v. Herndon (1927), the Supreme Court had held that a Texas statute prohibiting blacks from voting in primaries denied them equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Texas responded by granting state party executive committees the power to determine qualifications. The state Democratic committee promptly limited primary participation to whites. When Nixon, a black, was denied a primary ballot he sued, alleging that the committee had acted under the authority of the state statute and violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendant election officials argued that the political party was a private association and could define its own membership.
In his first opinion for the Court, Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo held the arrangement unconstitutional. The power to determine membership qualifications rested with the annual state party convention, which had never delegated its authority to the executive committee; instead, the committee's authority was vested by the state statute. This narrow holding suggested the option—subsequently exercised by Texas—to repeal all primary election statutes thus allowing state party conventions to exclude blacks. This approach to black disfranchisement was permitted until Smith v. Allwright (1944) established that primary elections were inherently state action and subject to the Constitution.
Thomas E. Baker