Back in April, I wrote about the Oyez Project, the online archive of Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decisions, including links to the oral argument in each case. Today I’d like to point out a case that might be of interest to you, Loving v. Virginia. This landmark civil rights decision held that miscegenation statutes (which criminalize interracial marriage) are unconstitutional, and has come back into the spotlight in recent years in the context of the gay marriage debate.
In this 1967 decision, SCOTUS unanimously rejected a Virginia statute — and by implication similar statutes in 15 other states — that criminalized interracial marriage. This case involved a white man, Richard Loving, and an African-American woman, Mildred Jeter, who resided in a rural Virginia community. They traveled to Washington, D.C., which had no ban on interracial marriage, and were married. After returning to Virginia, they each were charged with violating Virginia’s criminal statute prohibiting interracial marriage.
Pursuant to a plea deal, the Lovings were sentenced to one year in jail, with that sentence suspended for 25 years on the condition that they leave Virginia and not return to Virginia together for a period of 25 years. (As a side note, while no longer common, it remains the practice in some Virginia courts, especially in rural jurisdictions, to offer more lenient sentences in exchange for the defendant’s “voluntary” exile from the jurisdiction.)
For five years, the Lovings complied with the terms of their plea agreement, but were arrested when they returned to Virginia to visit her family. The Lovings decided to remain in Virginia and fight their convictions, a highly unusual procedural history for a case decided five years previously. After reaching out to then U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the Lovings were aided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the Loving’s conviction based on that court’s precedent, and the Lovings appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In its opinion, SCOTUS traced the history of anti-miscegenation laws, such as the Virginia law used to convict the Lovings, back to their roots in slavery, although the specific law at issue came from Virginia’s Racial Integration Act of 1924. While acknowledging that marriage is a “social relation subject to the state’s police power,” the Court held that:
The Court further held that Virginia’s statute violated the Lovings’ right to Due Process, stating:
Following their victory, the Lovings became heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. If you’re interested in learning more about their story, I recommend that you read this New York Times review of the HBO movie about the Lovings and their fight against Virginia’s discriminatory law. Also, a short YouTube video provides more of the back story and details of the legal arguments, with film clips.
Also of interest is the Virginia judge who wrote the Loving opinion for the Virginia Supreme Court, Justice Harry L. Carrico. Justice Carrico later became Chief Justice Carrico, and served in that capacity until 2003. Altogether, Justice Carrico served on the Virginia Supreme Court for a record 42 years, and all new Virginia attorneys are required to complete the Harry L. Carrico Professionalism Course.
Although reviled by many for his opinion in the Loving case, Justice Carrico was a widely respected figure in the Virginia legal community until his death in 2013. During his time as chief justice, Justice Carrico worked aggressively to increase the diversity of the legal community. He was succeeded as chief justice by Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell, Sr., the first African-American Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, and his daughter, Judge Lucretia Carrico, serves as a general district court judge in Virginia’s 11th Judicial District.