Monday, June 22, 2015

Today -100: June 22, 1915: No peculiar necromancy in 1866

Georgia Gov. John Slaton, in his last week in office, commutes Leo Frank’s death sentence to one of life imprisonment. His lengthy statement explaining his decision blames the trial judge, who is now conveniently dead, for not understanding his own power to commute the sentence when the case was entirely circumstantial, despite his own doubt about Frank’s guilt.

The governor declares martial law in the area ½ mile around his house, and troops with bayonets disperse crowds who want to... discuss the matter with him. This is believed to be the first time a United States governor has ever had to declare martial law to protect himself. A mass meeting at the Atlanta court house adopts resolutions denouncing Slaton for destroying the courts, because nothing says respect for the courts so much as a baying mob. In Marietta, home town of Mary Phagan, Slaton is hung in effigy, the effigy bearing a sign reading “John M. Slaton, King of the Jews and Georgia’s Traitor Forever.” State Solicitor Hugh Dorsey, who prosecuted the case, criticizes Slaton’s decision, saying that Slaton was “disqualified, at least to an extent, by his environment and affiliations” from viewing the case impartially(meaning that one of his law partners was Frank’s lawyer). Dorsey will be elected governor in 1916, largely on the back of this case.

In Guinn v. US, the Supreme Court strikes down the grandfather clause in the Oklahoma and Maryland constitutions in a ruling also affecting similar provisions in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Virginia (Wikipedia says also North Carolina, but the NYT says NC’s grandfather clause expired in 1908; in 1915 the state was instead using educational qualifications to stop negroes voting). In the law just struck down, Oklahoma’s literacy test for voters didn’t apply to people whose grandfathers were either eligible to vote in 1866 (before the passage of the 15th Amendment) or were soldiers or lived abroad. The state told the Court this didn’t violate the 15th Amendment because it didn’t explicitly mention race, which is the exact same argument made in 2015 in the Supreme Court in support of de facto housing segregation (Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project). But the Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, a former Confederate soldier, rejects OK’s claim as an evasion: “it cannot be said that there was any peculiar necromancy in the time named [1866], which engendered attributes affecting the qualification to vote”. The Court didn’t have a problem with a literacy test per se.

The NAACP filed a brief in the case, its first before the Court.

Oklahoma will keep the literacy provision, but require that those who had been excluded from voting by the overturned law register to vote within a 12-day period or “be perpetually disenfranchised.” That too was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1939.

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