Today in 1937: SCOTUS upholds poll taxes

December 6, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryA “poll tax” is, in the context of U.S. legal history, a tax to be paid as a prerequisite to voting.

Today, poll taxes are widely considered to be tools employed primarily to prevent blacks – most of whom were too poor to pay the tax – from voting during the Jim Crow era in the South.

However, only 76 years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the practice in Breedlove v. Suttles, decided on December 6, 1937.

But what’s the most interesting about Breedlove is not, perhaps, the fact that the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a law that was intended to be used to prevent blacks from voting in the segregated South; instead, it’s the fact that the challenge to the poll tax – made under the Equal Protection Clause – was brought by a white man.

That man, Nolen R. Breedlove, claimed that the Georgia tax, which exempted “the blind,” “females who do not register for voting,” and individuals under the age of 21 and over the age of 60, was unconstitutional.  Breedlove claimed that the law violated not only the Equal Protection Clause, but also the Privileges and Immunities Clause and the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibits voting discrimination on account of sex.  Breedlove attempted to register to vote, but, since he had not paid the poll tax, he was refused.

In response to Breedlove’s equal protection argument, the Court stated that “[t]he equal protection clause does not require absolute equality,” and as such, labeled the exemptions as “not unreasonable.”  “Collection from minors would be to put the burden upon their fathers or others upon whom they depend for support,” the Court noted.  In addition, the Court also observed that individuals over age 60 receive other exemptions because of their age (such as exemptions from “road work,” jury duty, and military service).

As far as why non-voting women were exempt, the Court held that

women may be exempted on the basis of special considerations to which they are naturally entitled.  In view of burdens necessarily borne by them for the preservation of the race, the state reasonably may exempt them from poll taxes.

The Court further elaborates to this point (“equal protection” apparently meant something much different back then):

The laws of Georgia declare the husband to be the head of the family and the wife to be subject to him… To subject her to the levy would be to add to his burden.

The Court similarly found Breedlove’s Nineteenth Amendment argument unpersuasive, finding nothing discriminatory in Georgia’s differential treatment of men and women; furthermore, the Court noted that the Amendment did nothing to limit the collection of taxes, and since “[t]he payment of poll taxes as a prerequisite to voting is a familiar and reasonable regulation long enforced in many states and for more than a century in Georgia,” the Court saw the tax as no barrier to the right to vote.

The Court changed its tune 29 years later in 1966’s Harper v. Virginia State Bd. of Elections, which struck down the use of poll taxes by the states, holding specifically that the Equal Protection Clause is violated “whenever [a state] makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard.”

Of course, the Supreme Court was a little late to the party with Harper, considering that the ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in January of 1964 eliminated the use of poll taxes in federal elections.  Still, Harper made poll taxes in state elections unconstitutional – going a step further than the Twenty-Fourth Amendment and completely nullifying Breedlove.

Although Breedlove has virtually no precedential value today, it still remains of historical interest as providing insight into the Supreme Court’s view of the Equal Protection Clause and of the definition of “discrimination” in general.