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Loving v. Virginia
| Part of a series on the|
|Standards of review|
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|Defining moments in law|
Miscegenation laws, and the facts of the case
Laws against interracial marriage were still in effect in sixteen US states as recently as 1967. Similar laws in other states had been repealed by then.
Richard and Mildred Loving were married in 1958. He was a white man, and she was a black woman. They got married in Washington D.C. because in their home state of Virginia the law still forbade interracial marriages, known in those days as "miscegenation". After their marriage, they lived together in Caroline County, Virginia. In 1959 they were found guilty of violating the law and both were sentenced one year in jail, although they were promised the sentence would be suspended if they left the state and did not return for 25 years.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving returned to Washington D.C., and in 1963 they brought a lawsuit that challenged the constitutional basis of Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the law in March 1966, but in June 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled it unconstitutional. Because of this, all the states which still had such laws could no longer enforce them, whether they repealed them or not.
Holding of the Court
The Court invalidated the ban on interracial marriages, and compelled Virginia to recognize interracial marriages, on equal protection grounds. Virginia argued that the ban was one of equal application — that is, blacks cannot marry whites and whites cannot marry blacks — and therefore not "discriminatory" under the Fourteenth Amendment, since the law did not classify on the basis of race per se. The Court found this formalist appeal unpersuasive, recognizing that a facially sound classification may have an invidious discriminatory intent. In other words, the Court would inquire not just as to formal soundness, but as to subordinative or racist effect as well, to vindicate the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. This functionalist reading of the Fourteenth Amendment is characteristic of the functionalist zeitgeist, following Brown v. Board of Education, and the Court's continued insistence to this day that statutory equal application is not a saving grace if it is subordinative.
Importantly, the Court also noted that the long tradition of anti-miscegenation laws would not save it from constitutional scrutiny. In other words, a measure's long tradition is not a guarantee of its justice.
Finally, the Court made an overture to substantive due process in the closing notes of the case, stating that a fundamental right to marry may have been implicated by the ban on miscegenation. Rather than revive substantive due process, though, the Court merely noted its willingness to consider such a plan of attack on discriminatory measures in the future. This was perhaps an attempt at "tipping off" civil rights lawyers as to another way to attack facially equal-application, yet discriminatory, measures.
Significance of the case
The Virginia Racial Integrity Act (VRIA) of 1924, not only prohibited interracial marriages, but categorized all people, including multiracial people, as either "Colored" or "White". A white person was defined as someone who had only "Caucasian blood", excepting only people who had no more than one great-grandparent Native American ancestry and no other non-white ancestry. This exception was to make allowance for a long-established group of descendants of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. A person was defined as "Colored" if they had any "negro" ancestry, as the people of that time expressed it. A person with at least one Native American grandparent, or one Native American grandparent and one "Negro" great-grandparent and who was also a member of an Indian tribe, was also typically defined as "Colored". The VRIA prohibited anyone from marrying outside of their official racial classifications. VRIA was originally tested and upheld in 1927, "Buck v. Bell, US200". When the Supreme Court ruled in Loving, they set aside the prohibitions on interracial marriage overturning that aspect of Buck v. Bell. However, the racial classifications were never overturned.
The case is also significant because it is about how the United States defined marriage. Before 1967, a legal marriage could not be contracted in states with anti-miscegenation laws if the partners were of different races. Thus the case redefined what constituted a marriage. Some proponents of gay rights have cited this case in support of a right to marriage, although opponents argue that this is not viable as the 'Loving' marriage was still between a man and a woman.