Ten Cases in Ten Days

In lieu of posting the ten most influential albums of my formative years, I'm posting ten judicial opinions that have shaped my view of constitutional law. Today’s case is Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967)—the most aptly named decision in American law—in which the Supreme Court ruled 53 years ago today that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the late 1950s, an African American woman named Mildred Jeter and a white man named Richard Loving fell in love. Although they lived in Virginia, the couple held their wedding in the District of Columbia because interracial marriage was a crime in their home state. Upon their return to Virginia, the Lovings were criminally charged under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The judge gave them a choice: they could each serve one year in jail or they could both leave the state of Virginia forever. The Lovings moved to DC and appealed their convictions to the Supreme Court, which accepted the case to consider the constitutionality of “antimiscegenation” laws on the books in 16 states at that time.

In defense of the state law, Virginia argued that the Equal Protection Clause only prohibits statutes that impose different criminal sentences based on race. Since both Richard and Mildred Loving were subject to the same sentence for the same crime, the state claimed the law was not discriminatory so long as the legislature had some rational basis for classifying citizens based on race. The Court disagreed, noting that all “distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry” are “odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” Consequently, “the Equal Protection Clause demands that racial classifications, especially suspect in criminal statutes, be subjected to the most rigid scrutiny, and, if they are ever to be upheld, they must be shown to be necessary to the accomplishment of some permissible state objective, independent of the racial discrimination which it was the object of the Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate.”

Applying that legal framework to the facts of the case, the Supreme Court ruled, “there is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy…. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

While the Equal Protection ruling was sufficient to reverse the Lovings’ convictions, the Court went further. “Marriage is one of the basic civil rights of man, fundamental to our very existence and survival,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren. “To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications … directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

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