Learn About the Law
Get help with your legal needs
FindLaw’s Learn About the Law features thousands of informational articles to help you understand your options. And if you’re ready to hire an attorney, find one in your area who can help.
In December, 1900, an indictment was found by the United States district court for the district of Kentucky against the appellee, Henry Bowman, and one Harry Weaver, based upon 5507 of the Revised Statutes of the United States (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 3712). The indictment charged, in substance, that certain 'men of African descent, colored men, negroes, and not white men,' being citizens of Kentucky and of the United States, were, by means of bribery, unlawfully and feloniously intimidated and prevented from exercising their lawful right of voting at a certain election held in the fifth congressional district of Kentucky on the 8th day of November, 1898, for the election of a representative in the Fifty- sixth Congress of the United States. [190 U.S. 127, 128] No allegation is made that the bribery was because of the race, color, or previous condition of servitude of the men bribed. The appellee, Henry Bowman, having been arrested and held in default of bail, sued out a writ of habeas corpus on the ground of the unconstitutionality of 5507. The district judge granted the writ, following reluctantly the decision of the circuit court of appeals for the sixth circuit, in Lackey v. United States, 53 L. R. A. 660, 46 C. C. A. 189, 107 Fed. 114. From that judgment the government has taken this appeal.
Section 5507 is as follows:
The 15th Amendment provides:
Solicitor General Hoyt and Mr. W. R. Harr for appellants.
[190 U.S. 127, 131] Messrs. Swagar Sherley and W. B. Dixon for appellee.
Mr. Justice Brewer delivered the opinion of the court:
The single question presented for our consideration is whether 5507 can be upheld as a valid enactment, for, if [190 U.S. 127, 136] not, the indictment must also fall, and the defendant was rightfully discharged. On its face the section purports to be an exercise of the power granted to Congress by the 15th Amendment, for it declares a punishment upon anyone who, by means of bribery, prevents another to whom the right of suffrage is guaranteed by such amendment from exercising that right. But that amendment relates solely to action 'by the United States or by any state,' and does not contemplate wrongful individual acts. It is in this respect similar to the following clauses in the 14th Amendment:
Each of these clauses has been often held to relate to action by a state, and not by individuals. As said in Virginia v. Rives, 100 U.S. 313 , 318, sub nom. Ex parte Virginia, 25 L. ed. 667, 669:
Again, in Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339, 346 , 25 S. L. ed. 676, 679:
Again , in United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 554 , 23 S. L. ed. 588, 592:
In Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3, 13 , 27 S. L. ed. 835, 840, 3 Sup. Ct. Rep. 18, 22:
United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629, 639 , 27 S. L. ed. 290, 294, 1 Sup. Ct. Rep. 601, 609:
See also Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36. 21 L. ed. 394; Scott v. McNeal, 154 U.S. 34, 45 , 38 S. L. ed. 896, 901, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1108; Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 233 , 41 S. L. ed. 979, 983, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 581.
But we are not left alone to this reasoning from analogy. The 15th Amendment itself has been considered by this court, and the same limitations placed upon its provisions. In United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 217 , 23 S. L. ed. 563, 564, we said:
In passing it may be noticed that this indictment charges no wrong done by the state of Kentucky, or by anyone acting under its authority. The matter complained of was purely as individual act of the defendant. Nor is it charged that the bribery was on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. True, the parties who were bribed were alleged to be 'men of African descent, colored men, negroes, and not white men,' and again, that they were 'persons to whom the right of suffrage and the right to vote was then and there guaranteed by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.' But this merely describes the parties wronged as within the classes named in the amendment. They were not bribed because they were colored men, but because they were voters. No discrimination on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude is charged.
These authorities show that a statute which purports to punish purely individual action cannot be sustained as an appropriate exercise of the power conferred by the 15th Amendment upon Congress to prevent action by the state through some one or more of its official representatives, and that an indictment which charges no discrimination on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude is likewise destitute of support by such amendment.
But the contention most earnestly pressed is that Congress has ample power in respect to elections of representative in Congress; that the election which was held, and at which this bribery took place, was such an election; and that therefore under such general power this statute and this indictment can be sustained. The difficulty with this contention is that Congress has not by this section acted in the exercise of such power. It is not legislation in respect to elections of Federal [190 U.S. 127, 140] officers, but is leveled at all elections, state or Federal, and it does not purport to punish bribery of any voter, but simply of those named in the 15th Amendment. On its face it is clearly an attempt to exercise power supposed to be conferred by the 15th Amendment in respect to all elections, and not in pursuance of the general control by Congress over particular elections. To change this statute, enacted to punish bribery of persons named in the 15th Amendment at all elections, to a statute punishing bribery of any voter at certain elections would be in effect judicial legislation. It would be wresting the statute from the purpose with which it was enacted and making it serve another purpose. Doubtless even a criminal statute may be good in part and bad in part, providing the two can be clearly separated, and it is apparent that the legislative body would have enacted the one without the other, but there are no two parts to this statute. If the contention be sustained, it is simply a transformation of the statute in its single purpose and scope. This question has been by this court in two cases carefully considered and fully determined. In United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214 , 23 L. ed. 563, there was an indictment, one count of which was based upon the 3d and another upon the 4th section of the act of May 31, 1870 (16 Stat. at L. 140, chap. 114, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 506) the 5th section of which act is substantially repeated in 5507, Rev. Stat. (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 3712). It is true that, as stated, 4 contains 'no words of limitation or reference, even, that can be construed as manifesting any intention to confine its provisions to the terms of the 15th Amendment. That section has for its object the punishment of all persons who by force, bribery, etc., hinder, delay, etc., any person from qualifying or voting.' And it is also true that the government expressly waived the consideration of all claims not arising out of the enforcement of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. Nevertheless the decision is directly in point. We said ( p. 221, L. ed. p. 565):
Again, in the Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82 , sub nom. United States v. Steffens, 25 L. ed. 550, the validity of an indictment under the 4th and 5th sections of the act of Congress to punish the counterfeiting of trademarks (19 Stat. at L. 141, chap. 274) was considered. The congressional enactments at that time attempted to authorize trademarks generally, and the statute referred to was equally general. It was held that under the Constitution Congress did not have control over the subject of trademarks generally, and, referring to the contention that to a limited extent it had, we said (p. 98, L. ed. p. 553):
We deem it unnecessary to add anything to the views expressed in these opinions. We are fully sensible of the great wrong which results from bribery at elections, and do not question the power of Congress to punish such offenses when committed in respect to the election of Federal officals. At the same time it is all-important that a criminal statute should define clearly the offense which it purports to punish, and that when so defined it should be within the limits of the power of the legislative body enacting it. Congress has no power to punish bribery at all elections. The limits of its power are in respect to elections in which the nation is directly interested, or in which some mandate of the national Constitution is disobeyed; and courts are not at liberty to take a criminal statute, broad and comprehensive in its terms and in these terms beyond the power of Congress, and change it to fit some particular transaction which Congress might have legislated for if it had seen fit.
The judgment of the District Court is affirmed.
Mr. Justice McKenna took no part in the decision of this case.
Mr. Justice Harlan and Mr. Justice Brown dissented.
Was this helpful?
Thank you. Your response has been sent.
A free source of state and federal court opinions, state laws, and the United States Code. For more information about the legal concepts addressed by these cases and statutes visit FindLaw's Learn About the Law.
Citation: 190 U.S. 127
Docket No: No. 213
Argued: March 16, 1903
Decided: May 04, 1903
Court: United States Supreme Court
Search our directory by legal issue
Enter information in one or both fields (Required)
FindLaw for Legal Professionals
Search our directory by legal issue
Enter information in one or both fields (Required)