Yarbrough, Ex Parte

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110 U.S. 651 (1884), argued 23–24 Jan. 1884, decided 3 Mar. 1884 by vote of 9 to 0; Miller for the Court. The Yarbrough decision is the one instance during Reconstruction in which the Supreme Court upheld federal power to punish private obstruction of someone's voting rights. Yarbrough and a band of Ku Klux Klansmen were convicted of beating and wounding Saunders, a Georgia black man, to prevent him from voting in a federal congressional election. The Court unanimously upheld the conviction against claims that there was no constitutional provision authorizing the pertinent statute, which forbade conspiring to injure or intimidate any citizen in the exercise of a federal right.

Justice Samuel F. Miller considered implied powers and the “times, places, and manner clause” (Art. I, sec. 4), and observed that the Fifteenth Amendment “does, proprio vigore, substantially confer on the negro the right to vote” (p. 665). He justified his extremely broad interpretation of these clauses on practical grounds. Otherwise, he argued, the country would be “at the mercy of the combinations of those who respect no right but brute force” (p. 667).

This broad interpretation, however, proved to be exceptional in its time. In a similar case, James v. Bowman (1903), the Court ignored Yarbrough and voided the federal act for attempting to control private action.

Ward E. Y. Elliott

Subjects: Law.

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