Facts of the Case
Coles petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus to direct Rives to release him on the grounds that a federal judge had no legal authority to arrest, jail, or try him. James G. Field, the Virginia attorney general, also intervened on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia and petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus to release the state judge. The Supreme Court heard arguments and decided the two petitions for the writ as one. The phrase "Ex Parte" in the title indicates that it was a judicial proceeding involving one party, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and not an adversarial proceeding between two or more parties.
Legal Background and Related Cases
The question at issue in the three cases decided on March 1, 1880, was whether the Fourteenth Amendment authorized Congress to forbid states to exclude African Americans from juries, a major extension of federal power over the states. In Strauder v. West Virginia, the first case, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a West Virginia law restricting jury service to white men as a violation of the citizenship rights of African Americans guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The fifth section of the amendment granted Congress the power to enforce its provisions by "appropriate legislation." The judges declared that the provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by which Congress had forbidden states from excluding African Americans from service on state juries were an appropriate means of protecting that civil right.
In 1879, Virginia law did not specifically exclude African Americans from jury service. It stated, "All male citizens twenty-one years of age, and not over sixty, who are entitled to vote and hold office, under the constitution and laws of this state, shall be liable to serve as jurors" unless exempted for some other reason unrelated to race. According to the law, judges were neither required to include nor exclude qualified African Americans. By not placing the names of qualified African American voters in the boxes from which they randomly drew names of men to be called for jury duty, Judge Coles and other Virginia state judges had decided on their own to exclude African Americans from jury selection.
The attorney general of Virginia and his associate counsel, the attorney William J. Robertson, represented Virginia in Ex Parte Virginia when the justices of the Supreme Court heard the petition for the writ of habeas corpus. Field and Robertson argued that Rives and the federal grand jury had no authority to indict, arrest, or try Coles or any of the other judges because Congress had no authority under the Constitution to adopt that section in the Civil Rights Act of 1875. States had always had the exclusive right to set qualifications for jury service, they argued, and the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were therefore not "appropriate legislation" within the meaning and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment. Field and Robertson also argued that the action of a judge in a state court was a personal act and not technically a state act, and therefore it could not violate the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibited states, not individual persons, from denying rights of citizenship.
Associate Justice William Strong delivered the Supreme Court's decision in Ex Parte Virginia (as he had in Strauder v. West Virginia and in Virginia v. Rives) and refused to issue the writ of habeas corpus that would have released Coles. For himself and a majority of the other judges, Strong declared that the purposes of the three amendments to the U.S. Constitution adopted in the years immediately after the American Civil War (1861–1865) were to define and guarantee the rights of citizens, specifically the rights of African Americans who had been freed from slavery. The judges of the Supreme Court had been of divided opinions about how to interpret the imprecise language of the Fourteenth Amendment, particularly the "privileges and immunities of citizenship" and "equal protection of the laws" clauses. In 1873, in the Slaughter-House Cases, the Supreme Court had narrowly interpreted them as protecting only rights guaranteed to citizens of the United States and not to rights that people possessed as citizens of any particular state.
In Ex Parte Virginia and in Strauder v. West Virginia, the majority of the justices interpreted the phrases and the whole of the Fourteenth Amendment more broadly. They specifically declared that Section 5 of the amendment granted Congress constitutional authority to enact a law that prohibited states from excluding African Americans from jury service in state courts, and they declared that jury service was a right of citizenship. That applied to states under Strauder v. West Virginia and to state judges who actually selected jury members under Ex Parte Virginia.
Following the Supreme Court's decisions in Virginia v. Rives and Ex Parte Virginia, Judge Rives tried two of the county judges in his federal court, but Attorney General Field declined to defend them. Even though Field disagreed with the Supreme Court's opinion in Virginia v. Rives, he recognized it as the controlling interpretation of the federal law. Mixed-race juries acquitted both judges, and Rives soon thereafter dismissed all the other cases. That did not mean, however, that large numbers of African Americans served on juries in late-nineteenth-century Virginia. The state's judges, sustained by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, interpreted the law and the cases as not requiring black jurors in cases with black plaintiffs or defendants, and often found other reasons not to seat African American jurors.
Judge Coles was not one of the judges tried in Rives's federal court, nor did he have occasion to select or reject any more qualified voters for jury duty. After the Conservative Party had lost its majority in the two houses of the General Assembly the previous November, the Readjuster Party majority elected new judges for many counties and cities, including Pittsylvania County. Coles ceased to be the county judge in February 1880, about ten days before the Supreme Court's decision in Ex Parte Virginia. Political support for strong civil rights laws declined during the 1880s, and federal courts invalidated some of the laws that Congress had passed. In 1883, in several cases decided together under the title Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prohibited personal, not state-enforced, acts of racial discrimination.
February 8, 1865 - The Senate of Virginia of the Restored government votes 5 to 0 to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolishes slavery.
February 9, 1865 - The House of Delegates of the Restored government votes 9 to 2 to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolishes slavery. Virginia becomes the twelfth state to ratify the amendment.
January 9, 1867 - Members of both houses of the General Assembly of Virginia vote against ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
March 2, 1867 - The U.S. Congress requires that the legislature of each state in the former Confederacy ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before its senators and elected representatives can be seated in Congress.
July 6, 1869 - Voters ratify a new state constitution, often called the Underwood Constitution, rejecting separate provisions that would have disfranchised men who had held civil or military office under the Confederacy. The new constitution supplants the former one, proclaimed on April 7, 1864.
October 8, 1869 - Both houses of the General Assembly of Virginia ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
1873 - The U.S. Supreme Court decides the Slaughter-House Cases with a narrow definition of the Reconstruction amendments, ruling that they protect only the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens and not the rights possessed by citizens of any particular state.
March 1, 1875 - Congress passes the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that bans racial discrimination in public places, transportation, and jury selection.
February 27, 1879 - Federal grand juries in Lynchburg and Danville indict James D. Coles, a Pittsylvania County judge, and thirteen other judges for excluding African American men from juries.
March 1879 - James D. Coles, a Pittsylvania County judge, is arrested by a federal marshal at the Pittsylvania County Courthouse for excluding African American men from juries.
October 1879 - James D. Coles, a Pittsylvania County judge, and the Commonwealth of Virginia petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus to release Coles from arrest for excluding African American men from juries.
February 18, 1880 - James D. Coles finishes his term as a Pittsylvania County judge.
March 1, 1880 - In Strauder v. West Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Fourteenth Amendment grants Congress the power to enforce racially inclusive state jury selection.
March 1, 1880 - In Virginia v. Rives, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a federal circuit court cannot claim jurisdiction over a state case when the state illegally discriminates in jury selection based on race.
March 1, 1880 - In Ex Parte Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules constitutional a provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prevents anyone from being disqualified from jury service by reason of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
October 15, 1883 - As part of the consolidated Civil Rights Cases, the U.S. Supreme Court rules unconstitutional some provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and declares that the constitution only forbids slavery and not public discrimination.
September 9, 1957 - The Civil Rights Act of 1957 becomes the first federal law to address the infringement of civil rights since the 1870s.
1987 - Pittsylvania County Courthouse is declared a National Historic Landmark.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Tarter, B. Ex Parte Virginia (1880). (2015, December 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Ex_Parte_Virginia_1880.
- MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Ex Parte Virginia (1880)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 18 Dec. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: December 8, 2015 | Last modified: December 18, 2015
Contributed by Brent Tarter, founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.