Katzenbach v. Morgan

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Katzenbach v. Morgan
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 18, 1966
Decided June 13, 1966
Full case name Nicholas Katzenbach, Attorney General, et al. v. Morgan et ux.
Citations 384 U.S. 641 (more)
86 S. Ct. 1717; 16 L. Ed. 2d 828; 1966 U.S. LEXIS 1337
Prior history A 3-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted appellees declaratory and injunctive relief
Congress may enact laws stemming from its 14th Amendment enforcement power that increase the rights of citizens beyond what the judiciary has recognized.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Brennan, joined by Warren, Black, Clark, White, Fortas
Concurrence Douglas
Dissent Harlan, joined by Stewart
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; Voting Rights Act of 1965: Section 4(e)

Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966)[1], was a United States Supreme Court case regarding the power of Congress, pursuant to Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, to enact laws which enforce and interpret provisions of the Constitution.


Prior to the 1960s, many states and municipalities in the United States used literacy tests in order to disenfranchise minorities. In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court held that literacy tests were not necessarily violations of Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment nor of the Fifteenth Amendment. Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959).

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which sought to safeguard the voting rights of previously disenfranchised minorities. Among other provisions, the Voting Rights Act made some literacy tests illegal. Section 4(e) was aimed at securing the franchisement of New York City's large Puerto Rican population, and "provides that no person who has completed the sixth grade in a public school, or an accredited private school, in Puerto Rico in which the language of instruction was other than English shall be disfranchised for inability to read or write English."

Registered voters in the state of New York brought suit, alleging that Congress exceeded its powers of enforcement under the 14th Amendment and alleging that Congress infringed on rights reserved to states by the 10th Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment[edit]

Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


Section. 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

The Supreme Court's decision[edit]

By a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, reversed the District Court, and held that Section 4(e) was constitutional. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Brennan stressed that Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment is "a positive grant of legislative power authorizing Congress to exercise its discretion in determining the need for and nature of legislation to secure Fourteenth Amendment guarantees." Justice Brennan applied the appropriateness standard of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) to determine whether the legislation passed constitutional muster.

Section 4(e) arguably expanded rights beyond what the Court had recognized in Lassiter, but Justice Brennan ruled that Section 4(e) was appropriate. In doing so, Brennan has often been credited with introducing the "ratchet theory" for congressional legislation enacted under Section 5. The "ratchet theory" held that Congress could ratchet up civil rights beyond what the Court had recognized, but that Congress could not ratchet down judicially recognized rights. The "ratchet theory" essentially set judicially recognized rights as a support, on which Congress could expand if it so chose. According to this "ratchet" theory, Justice Brennan's opinion allowed for multiple interpreters of the Fourteenth Amendment, as opposed to just the judiciary.

In dissent, Justice Harlan criticized the "ratchet theory" and the idea of multiple interpreters of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Harlan relied on the separation of powers doctrine to argue that allowing Congress to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment undercut the power of the judiciary. Justice Harlan objected to Congress having the power to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment substantively (that is, to create new rights). Harlan argued that the appropriate use of Section 5 power was the enforcement of judicially recognized Fourteenth Amendment rights.


Katzenbach v. Morgan is a prime example of judicial deference to Congressional authority, and allowed Congress great latitude in use of Section 5. Thirty-one years after Katzenbach, the Supreme Court revisited the "ratchet" interpretation, in the case of City of Boerne v. Flores (1997). The Boerne Court stated: "This is not a necessary interpretation, however, or even the best one." By striking down the state application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Court addressed the separation of powers concerns voiced earlier by Justice Harlan in Morgan.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Text of Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966) is available from:  Findlaw  Justia