In a majority opinion authored by Justice Byron White, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Florida law that punished interracial cohabitation more severely than cohabitation by individuals of the same race violated the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause. Appellants were convicted, fined, and imprisoned for violating this statute. The statute proscribed the following conduct: habitual occupation of a room at night by a Negro and a white person who are not married. No couple other than an interracial one (that is, black and white) could have been convicted under this statue. Moreover, there were no other statutory provisions that proscribed this sort of conduct for individuals of the same race. In fact, the appellants’ conduct would not have been illegal if they had both been white or both been black.
At issue in this case was a classification based on race and embodied in a criminal statute. In its analysis, the Court noted that classifications based on race are constitutionally suspect and subject to the most rigid scrutiny. Such classifications will only be upheld if they are necessary to the accomplishment of a legitimate state policy. Although each member of the interracial couple was subject to the same penalty under the law, the Court looked to whether or not the classifications drawn in the statute were reasonable in light of its purpose. The state argued that the purpose of the statute was to prevent breaches of basic concepts of sexual decency (that is, pre- or extramarital promiscuity).
Despite this argument, the Court found no overriding statutory purpose to proscribe interracial cohabitation, but not cohabitation by couples of the same race. In essence, there was nothing that made it essential to punish the promiscuity of one racial group and not that of another. Simply put, mere disapproval of a singular group of people was not a sufficient justification for banning conduct specific to that group. Thus, as the Court went on to hold, the appellants were denied equal protection under the law. Of particular note, two of the justices (Stewart, joined by Douglas, concurring) went further than the majority opinion. Neither justice could ever conceive of a valid legislative purpose that makes the color of a person’s skin the test of whether his conduct is a criminal offense.
The state of Florida also argued that the interracial cohabitation law was ancillary to its currently valid miscegenation law, which banned interracial marriages. However, the Court refused to address the question of that statute’s validity. Nevertheless, it is clear that this decision paved the way for the Supreme Court’s eventual invalidation of state laws prohibiting interracial marriages in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia (388 U.S. 1, 1967) case. Overall, McLaughlin affirmed the notion that racial classifications are constitutionally suspect and will only be upheld if they are necessary to serve a legitimate state interest. The application of criminal statutes must be even handed; regulating the particular conduct of one race and not another, solely because of race, is unconstitutional.
KERRY L. MUEHLENBECK
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited