Facts of the Case
Ex Parte Virginia was the third of three cases involving African American jury service that the Supreme Court decided on March 1, 1880. James D. Coles, a Pittsylvania County judge, was indicted on February 27, 1879, for refusing to allow African Americans to serve on juries. The federal grand juries that met in Danville and Lynchburg in February and March 1879 indicted judges from the following fourteen counties for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by barring African Americans from jury service: Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Botetourt, Buckingham, Campbell, Charlotte, Franklin, Fluvanna, Henry, Nelson, Patrick (the court involved in Virginia v. Rives), Pittsylvania, and Roanoke. The federal District Court judge Alexander Rives had the judges arrested so that they could stand trial.
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
After the abolition of slavery in the United States, Congress required most of the states of the former Confederacy to write new constitutions and to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Congress also passed a series of Reconstruction acts to secure the civil and political rights of former slaves, including the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prohibited states from racial discrimination in public places, transportation, and jury selection. The act was drafted by Charles Sumner, a senator and Radical Republican from Massachusetts, and John Mercer Langston, then the dean of Howard University law school and later the first African American congressman from Virginia.
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.
Virginia v. Rives, the second case, arose in Virginia after Rives ordered that a controversial murder trial involving African American defendants be removed from the circuit court of Patrick County to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Western District of Virginia. Rives issued the order because the judge in Patrick County had consistently refused to permit qualified African Americans to serve on juries. Attorney General Field appealed that order to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court decided that Rives had no authority under federal law to take the trial into the federal court system. The ruling was limited to the authority of the federal judge to take the case out of the county judge’s court and did not directly deal with the issue of African American jury service.
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.
The U.S. attorney general, Charles Devens, argued that the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prohibited states from excluding African Americans was, indeed, an appropriate exercise of congressional power to enforce the guarantee of substantial equal liberty that the Fourteenth Amendment provided to all citizens. Moreover, a judge, being an officer of the state, acted for the state in enforcing and applying its laws and was therefore required to act in conformity with the Civil Rights Act.
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.
Associate Justice Stephen J. Field dissented on two grounds. He and Justice Nathan Clifford, who joined the dissent, stated that the indictment under which Coles and the other judges had been jailed was too vague and was therefore invalid. For that reason, he believed that the judges should be released from confinement and from the threat of prosecution. Field also maintained that states had always had, and should continue to have, the right to establish qualifications for jury service in state courts. He distinguished between the civil rights that the Fourteenth Amendment protected and the political rights that he stated it did not protect. Field defined jury service as a political right that remained within the jurisdiction of the states, and he cited the Virginia Code that declared that only eligible voters were qualified for jury service. He also pointed out that Congress had to propose and the states to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment that prohibited states from denying the right to vote to men because of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude because that was a political right that the Fourteenth Amendment had not protected.
Ex Parte Virginia together with Strauder v. West Virginia confirmed the constitutionality of the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that prohibited states and state judges from excluding African American men from service on juries. More broadly, the two cases were an important confirmation and explanation of the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment and of the extensive power that it conferred on Congress to protect citizens’ rights from state abridgment.
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.
Legal scholars and civil rights advocates have long recognized the importance of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in Ex Parte Virginia. Federal courts have repeatedly cited it to explain the broad meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment and how it changed the relationship between the federal and state governments. In recognition of the enduring national importance of Ex Parte Virginia in defining rights of citizenship, in 1987 the Pittsylvania County Courthouse, where Coles had routinely excluded African Americans from jury service, became a National Historic Landmark.