Minor v. Happersett
Minor v. Happersett was an 1875 Supreme Court decision which ruled that the right to vote was not a protected privilege or immunity under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court found that the plaintiff was a citizen of the United States, but that citizenship in and of itself did not guarantee the right to vote. The case arose following Virginia Minor’s attempt to register to vote in St. Louis county Missouri in 1872. She was denied by the registrar, Reese Happersett. Minor filed suit against the Happersett, arguing in the lower Missouri courts that the restrictions against her registering and voting written into the Missouri Constitution were a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Minor’s legal argument was that full citizenship implied all of the rights of a citizen, including voting rights. As the case rose in the Missouri state courts she suffered setback after setback as judges decided that citizenship did not automatically convey voting rights. When it reached the Missouri Supreme Court the bench ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment was clearly written with the intent of granting citizenship to recently freed Blacks, and that the second portion of the amendment specifically referred to Black males. The court stated that it was not the intent of the amendment to force any state to change its laws in respect to voting requirements.
The next step for Minor was the Supreme Court of the United States, which although it had not heard, was well aware of the 1873 controversy over the Susan B. Anthony trial. Judge Ward Hunt, who had directed the jury’s verdict in that case, was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court when it heard arguments over Minor v. Happersett. When Minor’s case was presented, the additional argument was made that the Constitutional Convention had clearly intended for women to have the right to vote. The Supreme Court stated that the only issue which was before them for consideration was whether the Constitution specifically granted women the right to vote.
In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not grant women the right to vote, and as such the requirements for voting qualifications were in the hands of the states. They found that the right to vote was not an automatic right of citizenship, and that the Fourteenth Amendment did not enfranchise nor disenfranchise women. The court noted that at the time the Constitution was written numerous restrictions on voting existed, some requiring real property ownership and so forth. Despite not being qualified to vote, they were still citizens. The court found that had the framers desired otherwise it would have been clearly stated.
“The Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage on anyone” wrote Chief Justice Morrison Waite. Virginia Minor returned to Missouri, where she had been a leader of the women’s suffrage movement prior to undertaking her legal battle to vote. Although Virginia would later testify before Senate committees on the subject of women’s suffrage and other issues regarding women’s rights she died in Missouri in 1894, more than two and a half decades before women finally achieved the right to vote in most states.