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CASE:

NIXON V CONDON (1932)

Introduction

 

Nixon v Condon (1932) was a Supreme Court case challenging the Texas white primary. It was the second lawsuit against the state’s discriminatory voting system brought by Dr. Lawrence A. Nixon of El Paso, who had also been the plaintiff in Nixon v Herndon (1927). In Herndon, the Court struck down a Texas law prohibiting African Americans from voting in primary elections. In Condon, Dr. Nixon and the NAACP contested the constitutionality of a new Texas law delegating to the Texas Democratic Party the job of barring Black voters from primary contests.

 

Dr. Nixon’s first challenge to the white primary in Herndon had produced a ruling that a state law allowing only white Texans to vote in primary elections violated the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection. But the Court in that case ignored the NAACP’s claim that the Fifteenth Amendment applied to party primary, as well as general, elections, a standard that would have provided a much firmer foundation for Black voting rights.

 

As soon as Herndon was decided, Texas Governor Dan Moody (who had unsuccessfully represented the state in that case) moved to exploit this limitation. In 1927, the State of Texas repealed the old law prohibiting Black primary voting and instead passed a new statute giving party executive committees the power to set qualifications for participating in primary elections. The authority given to party executive committees by the state was a new one. Prior to passage of the law, primary elections in Texas had been open to anyone eligible to vote.  With its new authority, the State Democratic Executive Committee quickly adopted a rule that “all white Democrats … and none other” could vote in primary elections to select Democratic candidates.

 

Dr. Nixon, again with the support of the national NAACP, sued to challenge the law after being denied the right to vote in the 1928 Democratic primary by precinct judge James Condon, who signed a statement that Nixon was excluded because “he is a negro, and because we were instructed by the Democratic Executive Committee… to permit no one to vote except white Democrats.” 

 

In the initial trial and then on appeal to the circuit court, judges accepted Condon’s argument that the Democratic Party’s new white-only rule complied with Herndon because it was there was no state action involved. The Party was a voluntary association with the power to exclude whomever it wanted from contests to select Democratic candidates for the general election, the courts ruled. While the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment prohibited the state from making rules to deny one race the right to vote, the private Democratic Party could.

 

The NAACP’s argued that the State Democratic Executive Committee acted with the delegated powers of the state. The Party could set rules for membership, the NAACP pointed out, but the new power to restrict election participation had come from state statute. The NAACP also asked the courts to apply the Fifteenth Amendment to primary elections.  Central to their case were statistics showing that the Democratic Primary elections almost always decided the winner of the general election. Voters knew that the Democratic primary was functioned as a general election in Texas, a position evidenced by statistics presented by the NAACP showing that voter turnout in the primary was always much higher than that in the general election.

 

At the Supreme Court, the Texas Attorney General declined to appear in initial oral argument on January 7, 1932, so as not to provide confirmation that the State had an interest in the Democratic Party’s whites-only primary rule. Instead, the Texas Democratic Party defended the Texas enabling law in re-argument on March 15.  The Democratic Party, joined by lawyers for Condon, argued that the Texas law merely got out of the way of the Executive Committee’s private right to set its own membership to only white voters.

 

The Supreme Court rejected the position of the Texas Democratic Party. In a narrowly-reasoned ruling, the Court held that the delegation of state authority to the executive committee was state action, and violated the Fourteenth Amendment when used to exclude one race from participation in primary contests. - Amy Gonzales

 

 

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

 

The case presented the Supreme Court with two questions:

 

1) Did a state law enabling private organization to set racial limits on primary contests constitute “state action” subject to Constitutional scrutiny?

 

2) Were primary contests to select nominees of political parties elections subject to the Fifteenth Amendment prohibition of racial disfranchisement?
 

 

Citation and Decision

Nixon v. Condon, 286 US 73 (1932)  | Full Decision

 

The Court issued a 5 to 4 decision in favor of Nixon and the NAACP. The majority opinion, written by Justice Cardozo and joined by Stone, Brandeis, Hughes, and Sanford, was a narrow and technical ruling striking down the Texas law as an unconstitutional delegation of state power to the Executive Committee. The Texas Democratic Party’s own rules did not give the Executive Committee the authority to limit primary participation, thus the power to set the whites-only rule in primary elections had come from the state, and was an exercise of state power in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. As in the earlier Herndon decision, the Court did not address the question of whether primary elections were subject to the Fifteenth Amendment. Also, much like Herndon, the Condon majority provided an obvious loophole: if the State Democratic Executive Committee lacked the authority to exclude Black voters, the Party membership itself might.

 

Discussion Questions

 

1. Under the Constitution, did political parties have the right to choose their memberships? 

 

2. What actions of a political party could be said to be purely “private?” 

 

3. If the nominees of one particular political party (like the Democratic Party in Southern states) always prevailed in general elections, should that party’s nominating contests be subject to the rules established by the Constitution for elections?

 

4. After the Condon ruling, what could the Texas Democratic Party do to continue limiting primary elections to white voters?

 

5. Was the Court acting to get rid of the white primary, or was it simply laying out a path by which the white primary could be reformed to comply with the Constitution?

Links

Oyez: Nixon v. Condon (1932)

National Park Service: Racial Voting Rights