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Hunter v. Underwood

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Hunter v. Underwood

Hunter v. Underwood
Argued February 26, 1985
Decided April 16, 1985
Full case name Hunter, et al. v. Victor Underwood, et al.
Citations 471 U.S. 222 (more)
105 S. Ct. 1916; 85 L. Ed. 2d 222; 1985 U.S. LEXIS 2740; 53 U.S.L.W. 4468
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Rehnquist, joined by Burger, Brennan, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor
Powell took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Hunter v. Underwood, 471 U.S. 222 (1985), was a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court invalidated the felony disenfranchisement provision of § 182 of the Alabama Constitution as a violation of equal protection.[1]


Edwards, an African-American, and Underwood, white, were blocked from voting after presenting a worthless check. Their disenfranchisement was mandated by § 182 of the Alabama Constitution, which disenfranchised persons convicted of "any crime...involving moral turpitude."[2] Edward and Underwood contended that this was against amendment 14 of the US constitution, since the purpose and effect of this rule was directed against Afro-American suffrage.

This part of Alabama's constitution was worked out at a constitutional convention in 1901, and afterwards adopted by a popular referendum. The new provisions in the constitution included a long list of both felonies and misdemeanors which should lead to disenfranchisement, together with the general provision in §182. In applying this generic paragraph, the Alabama Board of Registrars consulted precedences in the Alabama state court decisions, or asked the Alabama State Attourney for an opinion.

Edward and Underwood contended that the registrar's decision to deny them suffrage was against amendment 14 of the US constitution, since the purpose and effect of this rule was directed against Afro-American suffrage.

Lower court decisions

Edwards and Underwood sued the Board of Registrars at a Federal District Court, which found that indeed the outspoken purpose of the constitutional change was "the disenfranchisement of blacks", but could not find it proven that this was based on racism, and decided against the plaintiffs. Edwards and Underwood appealed to a Court of Appeal, who reversed the decision into their favor. The Court of Appeal held that when the discriminatory purpose had been firmly established, as in this case, it was the burden of the defendants to prove that without this discriminatory purpose the outcome would have been the same. In the court's opinion, the registrar representatives had failed to do this.

The Alabama Board of Registrars in their turn appealed to the Supreme Court.

Opinion of the Court

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Court of Appeal, and thus struck down the provision as a violation of equal protection.

The court identified § 182 as a facially neutral law with racially disproportionate effects, thus requiring an inquiry to discover if the law was passed with a discriminatory purpose. The provision was adopted at a convention in 1901, and the court found ample evidence that the law and other measures of the convention were passed with the outspoken intention of disenfranchising practically all African-Americans, from its very start. At the opening address, the chairman of the convent claimed that its purpose was

"within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this State".

This was supported by the minutiae of the proceedings, where delegates repeatedly claim that they do not wish to disenfranchise "whites", but "blacks". The appelants did not contend that it was so. However, they claimed that this openly acknowledged purpose was accompanied by an unspoken purpose of disenfranchising "poor whites". The true object, they claimed, was for the ruling party, the Southern Democrats, to prohibit the Populists and the Republicans to threaten their position, by disenfrancising such groups of voters who were more inclined to vote on these parties. However, since they needed the "white votes" in order to bring through these measures directed against a tangible part of the "white electorate", the Convent could not openly explain what their purpose was. Instead, they exaggerated the purpose of disenfranchise the Afro-Americans.

The appelants held that thus the disenfrancisement rules were not unconstitutional, since the secret ultimate purpose was to secure the rule of the Southern Democrats by disenfranchising a sufficient amount of the supporters of their opponents, independent of their race. They claimed that rewriting the laws for such a purpose was not prohibited by the constitution.

The Supreme Court did not comment on the constitutionality of the purpose that the appelants claimed that the constitutional reform had. Instead, the court noted that the enumerated misdemeanors in the constitution had been chosen with some care, so that it disenfrancised persons found guilty of many lesser offences for which mainly Afro-Americans were convicted, but not for greater offences more common among the whites. In the courts opinion, this etablished discrimination against Afro-Americans as a major purpose of the constitutional reform (both in words and deeds). Whether or not there also was a secondary purpose, as outlined by the appelants, therefore would be irrelevant.


  1. ^ Varat, J.D. et al. Constitutional Law Cases and Materials, Concise Thirteenth Edition. Foundation Press, NY: 2009, p. 574
  2. ^ Varat, p. 574

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