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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1966: Katzenbach v. Morgan

"The persons referred to include those who have migrated from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to New York and who have been denied the right to vote because of their inability to read and write English"

—Justice Brennan

Al Ravenna, photographer. Puerto Ricans demonstrate for civil rights at City Hall, New York City. 1967. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The U.S. Supreme Court landmark case Katzenbach V. Morgan (1966) addressed the constitutionality of section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which held that no state shall impede suffrage to individuals lacking English language literacy. Ultimately, Justice Brennan, in a 7-2 decision, ruled that Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act was constitutional under Section 5 of the 14th amendment and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

By 1965, a series of constitutional amendments and federal laws had revoked and made illegal poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats to voting. The Jones Act of 1917 granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans endowing them suffrage and permitting many to migrate to the U.S. mainland. However, many Puerto Ricans faced disenfranchisement, including Ms. Cardona, who in Cardona v. Power (1966), unsuccessfully filed suit for being denied suffrage due to her lack of English literacy. A 1921 New York voting law, impeded Puerto Ricans from voting without documentation of completed 6th grade coursework at an approved elementary or high school where English was the “language of instruction.”

John P. Morgan and Christine Morgan filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act, which conflicted with New York laws requiring English proficiency. On November 15, 1965, a three judge panel ruled in favor of the Morgans by declaring section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Brennan delivered the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 13, 1966 and held the constitutionality of section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act under section 5 of the 14th Amendment, which granted Congress power to enforce the 14th Amendment, and the U.S. Supremacy Clause, which permits federal law to triumph over state laws, ultimately, striking down New York voting laws requiring English proficiency.

Timeline

March 2, 1917 The Jones Act of 1917 grants Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship.
November 1921 New York voters pass a state amendment adopting English literacy requirements to vote.
August 6, 1965 The Voting Rights Act of 1965 forbids racial discrimination in voting.
November 15, 1965 A three panel federal district court rules the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
June 13, 1966 The Supreme Court rules Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act constitutional under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Resources

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