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Grovey v. Townsend

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295 U.S. 45 (1935), argued 11 Mar. 1935, decided 1 Apr. 1935 by vote of 9 to 0; Roberts for the Court. In 1923 Texas prohibited blacks from participating in the Democratic primaries in the state, but in Nixon v. Herndon (1927) the Supreme Court ruled this law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Texas legislature then authorized the party's executive committee to prohibit blacks from voting in party primaries, but in Nixon v. Condon (1932) the Court ruled that this still constituted impermissible state action because the party executive committee was a creation of the legislature. Even before the Court decided the Grovey case, the Texas Democratic Party took steps to protect their whites-only primary system. In May 1932 a convention of Texas Democrats limited party membership to whites. R. R. Grovey, a black resident of Houston, sued the county clerk for refusing to give him a ballot for a Democratic primary election. Justice Owen Roberts ruled that the party convention's decision to exclude blacks from the Democratic primary was not state action because the party was a voluntary association of its members, who had acted in their private capacity to exclude blacks. Roberts reached this conclusion despite his acknowledgment that the state regulated primaries in a variety of ways, including a requirement that sealed ballot boxes be turned over to county clerks after each primary election. In the absence of state action, Roberts found that the white primary was constitutional when authorized by a party convention without any encouragement from the state legislature. This holding was later specifically reversed in Smith v. Allwright (1944).

Paul Finkelman

Subjects: Law

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