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Profile: John Marshall Harlan II

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John Marshall Harlan II was a participant or observer in the following events:

The US Supreme Court, in the case of Gray v. Sanders, rules that Georgia’s “county unit” system of voting is unconstitutional, and codifies the concept of “one person, one vote.” Georgia’s “county unit” voting system is unfairly weighed to maximize votes from largely white rural areas and to dilute votes from urban districts with larger minority populations. Georgia voter James Sanders brought a suit challenging the system; his suit named James H. Gray, the chairman of the State Executive Committee of the Democratic Party, as one of the defendants. The Court agreed to hear this case though it had refused to hear previous challenges to the “county unit” system in the past. The Court rules 8-1 that the system violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants equal protection under the law. In the majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas writes, “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to the Fifteenth, Seventeenth, and Nineteenth Amendments can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.” The lone dissenter, Justice John Marshall Harlan II, says the case should be sent back to lower courts for retrial. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

The US Supreme Court, in the case of Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, finds Virginia’s law upholding “poll taxes” to be unconstitutional. The 7-2 decision finds that poll taxes—fees demanded of voters, which have been used for over a century to disenfranchise minority voters (see February 4, 1964 and December 6, 1937)—violate the Constitution by imposing discriminatory restrictions on voting. Justice William O. Douglas writes the majority opinion, with Justice Hugo Black and John Marshall Harlan II dissenting. Douglas cites the landmark Brown v. Board decision (see May 17, 1954) and the recently passed Voting Rights Act (see August 6, 1965) in his ruling. (Legal Information Institute 2011)


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