Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leser v. Garnett: The Nineteenth Amendment (and Women's Suffrage) Challenged

Leser v. Garnett (decided 27 February 1922)


Although the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States--the amendment affirming that women had the right to vote--was ratified on 26 August 1920 (actually, the amendment's ratification was certified on that date), the constitutionality of the amendment was challenged, the case winding up in the Supreme Court.

The Court's opinion, delivered on 27 February 1922 by Justice Louis Brandeis, summarized the origins of the case:
On October 12, 1920, Cecilia Streett Waters and Mary D. Randolph, citizens of Maryland, applied for and were granted registration as qualified voters in Baltimore City. To have their names stricken from the list Oscar Leser and others brought this suit in the court of Common Pleas. The only ground of disqualification alleged was that the applicants for registration were women, whereas the constitution of Maryland limits the suffrage to men. Ratification of the proposed Amendment to the Federal . . . Constitution, now known as the Nineteenth, . . . , had been proclaimed on August 26, 1920. . . . The Legislature of Maryland had refused to ratify it. The petitioners contended, on several grounds, that the Amendment had not become part of the Federal Constitution. 
The plaintiffs disputed the constitutionality of the Nineteenth Amendment on three principle "grounds": that the power to amend the Constitution did not cover this amendment "because of its character"; that several states that had ratified the amendment despite the fact that their state constitutions prohibited women from voting; and that, in particular, the ratifications of the states of Tennessee and West Virginia were were invalid because they were adopted without following the rules of legislative procedure in place in those states.

In its decision, the court addressed, and responded to, each objection in turn. The Court's response to the first objection reveals the fears of Leser and his fellow plaintiffs: "The argument is that so great an addition to the electorate, if made without the State's consent, destroys its autonomy as a political body." The Court refutes this argument by referring to the Fifteenth Amendment (while noting that the state of Maryland had rejected that amendment, granting the right to vote to former slaves--or, at least, to male slaves).

To the second, the Court argued, "the function of a state legislature in ratifying a proposed amendment to the Federal Constitution, like the function of Congress in proposing the amendment, is a federal function derived from the Federal Constitution; and it transcends any limitations sought to be imposed by the people of a State."

Finally, while responding in some detail to the arguments about Tennessee and West Virginia, the Court noted that the "question raised may have been rendered immaterial by the fact that since the proclamation the legislatures of two other States — Connecticut and Vermont — have adopted resolutions of ratification."

The decision was unanimous.