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Oregon v. Mitchell (1970)


As the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the 1960s, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Within a year, at least two cases challenging the constitutionality of the act came before the Supreme Court. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, the state of South Carolina took issue with a provision that required states to clear amendments to state voting laws with the U.S. Attorney General before adopting them. And, in Katzenbach v. Morgan, the Court was asked to rule on whether Congress had the authority to ban voter literacy tests.

Image of a 'VOTE' button.
In both cases, the Court upheld the federal legislation. The Court based its ruling in the South Carolina case on Congress's powers under the Fifteenth Amendment (which provides that the right to vote may not be denied on the grounds of race, color, or previous condition of servitude), while its decision in Katzenbach v. Morgan proceeded from the Fourteenth Amendment (guaranteeing all citizens equal protection under the law). The argument was that Congress had the authority to add to the protections offered by the Fourteenth Amendment but not the authority to detract from them. Since it was widely acknowledged that literacy tests were often used to restrict minority voters, bans on these tests constituted a legitimate means of protecting the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.

Soon, however, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments came to the fore again, when four states -- Texas, Idaho, Arizona, and Oregon -- filed cases questioning the constitutionality of the 1970 Voting Rights Act Amendments. These amendments lowered the minimum voting age to 18 in state and national elections, expanded existing bans on literacy testing, and forbade durational residency requirements for voters. Each of the four states seeking to overturn the legislation was concerned with a different aspect of the amendments. The state of Oregon, which brought suit against the Attorney General of the United States, John Mitchell, was principally interested in challenging the federal government's power to regulate minimum voting age in the states.


Oregon v. Mitchell and the other cases arising out of the 1970 Voting Rights Act Amendments raised difficult questions about the division of power between state and national governments. Although the Constitution gives privileges to and sets parameters for each, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (often referred to as the Civil War Amendments) qualified state power in order to give the federal government the authority to protect citizens against discriminatory practices. In Oregon v, Mitchell, the Court was asked to answer the question: Does the authority vested in the federal government by the Fourteenth Amendment give Congress the right to regulate age requirements for both national and state elections?

What did the majority rule in this case?