The Hughes Court (1930–41)
Race and Equal Protection
How did the Hughes Court address Texas’s primary system, which limited African Americans from voting?
The Hughes Court issued two decisions relating to the Texas Democratic Party and its practice of restricting African Americans from voting. In Nixon v. Condon (1927), the Hughes Court invalidated a Texas law that allowed political parties’ executive committees to prohibit African Americans from voting in party primaries. The Court narrowly ruled 5–4 that the executive committees were state actors sufficient to trigger the Fourteenth Amendment equal-protection guarantees. “Delegates of the state’s power have discharged their official functions in such a way as to discriminate invidiously between white citizens and black,” Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote for the Court.
However, Cardozo wrote that if a private political party discriminated on its own without state authorization, the question might be resolved differently. Texas officials then repealed its primary election law and power to determine voter qualifications resided in the state party conventions. The Democratic Party then determined at its conventions to allow only whites to vote. R. R. Grovey, an African American from Houston, challenged this new system as unconstitutional. However, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Grovey v. Townsend (1935) that this new system was not unconstitutional because the discrimination was done by a private political party at its convention, not by state officials. “We are not prepared to hold that in Texas the state convention of a party has become a mere instrumentality or agency for expressing the voice or will of the state,” Justice Owen Roberts wrote.
The Stone Court would later overrule Grovey v. Townsend in Smith v. Allwright (1944).