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Katzenbach v. Morgan (1965)

Last Updated: 2006

Katzenbach v. Morgan (1965) considered a challenge to Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That provision in effect substitutes the attainment of a sixth-grade level of education in a Puerto Rican school for the requirement of English language literacy as a prerequisite for voting in New York State. This provision had been struck down in the lower courts because the Supreme Court had recently held in Lassiter v. Northampton Election Board (1959) that an English language literacy requirement was consonant with the demands of the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause. Justice Brennan, writing for the court majority, argued that Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment empowers Congress to enforce the amendment, including the Equal Protection Clause. He applied a McCulloch-like test affirming a broad discretion in Congress to determine “whether and what legislation is needed to secure the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment.” “It was well within Congressional authority to say this need of the Puerto Rican minority for the vote warranted federal intrusion upon any state interest served by the literacy requirement.” Justice Harlan wrote a powerful dissent in which he argued that whatever power Congress has under Section 5 is the power to enforce the amendment, and if an English language literacy requirement is legitimate under the amendment, a measure overturning that requirement cannot be conceived to be an enforcement of the amendment.