Supreme Court decision
By: Earl Warren
Date: June 12, 1967
Source: Warren, Earl. Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1. Available online at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=case... ; website home page: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com (accessed June 12, 2003).
About the Author: Earl Warren (1891–1974) received his bachelor's degree from the University of California in 1912 and his law degree there two years later. After three years in private practice, he joined the army in 1917, then began a career in government as deputy city attorney for Oakland. From 1945 to 1953, he was governor of California. He became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953, a position he held until 1969. The Warren Court is synonymous with expansion of civil rights and civil liberties.
Ever since the first Africans were brought to the United States in chains, there has been a strong concern among some whites about "race purity." With the end of slavery after the Civil War (1861–1865), concerns over interracial relations increased, leading to laws against interracial marriages. In the public's mind, widespread lynchings of African Americans were justified because, it was thought, African American men desired white women and had to be strongly dissuaded from acting on those desires. In truth, few of the crimes even alleged against blacks in lynchings were rapes. Lynching was much more about power than sex.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, laws against "miscegenation," or interracial marriage, were strengthened. In Virginia, for example, the definition of a "colored" person was changed. Previously, a person who was one-fourth black was legally considered "colored." The new law changed that proportion to one-sixteenth. In 1958, two Virginians, Richard Loving, a white, and Mildred Jeter, an African American, married in Washington, D.C. Their marriage was considered illegal in Virginia, so they were arrested when they returned home. They were given a one-year sentence, with the sentence suspended on condition that they leave Virginia and never return. They appealed their conviction, and their case, Loving v. Virginia, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court unanimously struck down the Virginia law. The Court concluded that the right to marriage and to procreation were fundamental rights, and therefore the state could not interfere with them. The Court's decision had an immediate widespread effect—antimiscegenation laws in fifteen states besides Virginia were struck down.
The Loving decision was consistent with the Warren Court's defense of fundamental rights and of privacy, even though "privacy" is not a right specifically enumerated in the Constitution. In Griswold v. Connecticut, for example, the Warren Court cited the right to privacy in striking down a state law banning the use of contraceptives. Later, in Roe v. Wade, the Court ruled that a woman has a fundamental right to an abortion because state interference with that right would violate her right to privacy. In 2003, the Court agreed to reexamine the issue of state laws criminalizing sodomy. In the meantime, states have not attempted to recriminalize interracial marriage, in part because of changing social attitudes and in part because larger numbers of African Americans were able to exercise their right to vote.
Primary Source: Loving v. Virginia [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: Chief Justice Warren, writing for the unanimous Court, first surveys the facts of the case and notes that Virginia defends the law as applying equally to all races. Warren then holds that to establish a classification system based on race, the state must show that the law is necessary to accomplish a permissible state objective, which Virginia was unable to do. Warren concludes that the law is invalid because its only purpose is to make racial classifications and deny due process of law.
Mr. Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents a constitutional question never addressed by this Court: whether a statutory scheme adopted by the State of Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. For reasons which seem to us to reflect the central meaning of those constitutional commands, we conclude that these statutes cannot stand consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment.
On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to the charge and were sentenced to one year in jail; however, the trial judge suspended the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave the State and not return to Virginia together for 25 years. He stated in an opinion that:
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.…
The central features of this Act, and current Virginia law, are the absolute prohibition of a "white person" marrying other than another "white person".…
In upholding the constitutionality of these provisions in the decision below, the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia referred to its 1955 decision in
While the state court is no doubt correct in asserting that marriage is a social relation subject to the State's police power, … the State does not contend in its argument before this Court that its powers to regulate marriage are unlimited notwithstanding the commands of the Fourteenth Amendment.… Instead, the State argues that the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause, as illuminated by the statements of the Framers, is only that state penal laws containing an interracial element as part of the definition of the offense must apply equally to whites and Negroes in the sense that members of each race are punished to the same degree. Thus, the State contends that, because its miscegenation statutes punish equally both the white and the Negro participants in an interracial marriage, these statutes, despite their reliance on racial classifications, do not constitute an invidious discrimination based upon race. The second argument advanced by the State assumes the validity of its equal application theory. The argument is that, if the Equal Protection Clause does not outlaw miscegenation statutes because of their reliance on racial classifications, the question of constitutionality would thus become whether there was any rational basis for a State to treat interracial marriages differently from other marriages. On this question, the State argues, the scientific evidence is substantially in doubt and, consequently, this Court should defer to the wisdom of the state legislature in adopting its policy of discouraging interracial marriages.
Because we reject the notion that the mere "equal application" of a statute containing racial classifications is enough to remove the classifications from the Fourteenth Amendment's proscription of all invidious racial discriminations, we do not accept the State's contention that these statutes should be upheld if there is any possible basis for concluding that they serve a rational purpose.… In the case at bar, … we deal with statutes containing racial classifications, and the fact of equal application does not immunize the statute from the very heavy burden of justification which the Fourteenth Amendment has traditionally required of state statutes drawn according to race.
The State argues that statements in the Thirty-ninth Congress about the time of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment indicate that the Framers did not intend the Amendment to make unconstitutional state miscegenation laws.… While these statements have some relevance to the intention of Congress in submitting the Fourteenth Amendment, it must be understood that they pertained to the passage of specific statutes and not to the broader, organic purpose of a constitutional amendment. As for the various statements directly concerning the Fourteenth Amendment, we have said in connection with a related problem, that although these historical sources "cast some light" they are not sufficient to resolve the problem; "[a]t best, they are inconclusive.…" We have rejected the proposition that the debates in the Thirty-ninth Congress or in the state legislatures which ratified the Fourteenth Amendment supported the theory advanced by the State, that the requirement of equal protection of the laws is satisfied by penal laws defining offenses based on racial classifications so long as white and Negro participants in the offense were similarly punished.…
The clear and central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to eliminate all official state sources of invidious racial discrimination in the States.…
There can be no question but that Virginia's miscegenation statutes rest solely upon distinctions drawn according to race. The statutes proscribe generally accepted conduct if engaged in by members of different races. Over the years, this Court has consistently repudiated "[d]istinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry" as being "odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality." … At the very least, the Equal Protection Clause demands that racial classifications, especially suspect in criminal statutes, be subjected to the "most rigid scrutiny," Korematsu v. United States,… (1944), and, if they are ever to be upheld, they must be shown to be necessary to the accomplishment of some permissible state objective, independent of the racial discrimination which it was the object of the Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate. Indeed, two members of this Court have already stated that they "cannot conceive of a valid legislative purpose … which makes the color of a person's skin the test of whether his conduct is a criminal offense."
There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.
These statutes also deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.
Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival.… To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.
These convictions must be reversed.
It is so ordered.
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