Principled Expediency: Eugenics, Naim v. Naim, and the Supreme Court

Principled Expediency: Eugenics, Naim v. Naim, and the Supreme Court

The American Journal of Legal History
Volume 42, Number 2 (April, 1998)
pages 119-159

Gregory Michael Dorr, Visiting Assistant Professor in Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought
Amherst College

In March 1956, the Supreme Court refused to hear Naim v. Naim, a suit contesting the constitutionality of Virginia’s antimiscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Court’s two per curiam decisions in this case sparked a debate surrounding Supreme Court adjudication. Did the Court act on legal “principle,” or in response to political “expediency,” in refusing to find a properly presented federal question in Naim? Examination of the available evidence shows that the court was not unanimous in avoiding Naim. Ultimately, Felix Frankfurter’s intra-court politicking preventing the Court from deciding Naim. Frankfurter convinced the brethren that avoiding Naim was possible, despite the fact that its appellate status tapped the Court’s “obligatory jurisdiction.” To understand the “principle” that undergirded Frankfurter’s “expedient” action, one must consider the background of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act. Eugenical theory provided the state with a colorably rational basis for racial restrictions in Virginia’s marriage law. As counsel never directly challenged the reasonableness of the racial classifications—never challenged the eugenical precepts supporting the law—Frankfurter was able to convince his colleagues that the Court could not consider the constitutional issue in “clean cut and concrete form unclouded.” Then, following the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeal’s defiance of the Supreme Court’s remand order, Frankfurter urged that the Court could defer the case for lack of “a properly presented federal question.” In so doing, Frankfurter extended the life of miscegenation statutes eleven years—until the Court struck them down in Loving v. Virginia.

It is unlikely that Chinese sailor Ham Say Naim ever heard the word miscegenation before he jumped ship in 1942. Eleven years later Naim, still a Chinese national, sat in Judge Floyd E. Kellam’s Portsmouth, Virginia Circuit Courtroom. His wife of twenty months, Ruby Elaine Naim, a white woman, sought a divorce on the grounds of adultery. Choosing not to rule on the divorce action, Kellam granted Ruby Elaine Naim an annulment under part of the Virginia Code entitled, “An Act to Preserve Racial Integrity.” These statutes decreed interracial marriage—because of its result, miscegenation or racial intermixture—illegal and “void without decree” in Virginia. Ham Say Naim’s counsel appealed the case, through the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, to the United States Supreme Court in the October Term of 1955. In a surprising series of events, the case bounced between the Supreme Court and Virginia’s highest court. The case ended in March 1956 when the Supreme Court, in a cryptic memorandum decision, ruled, ‘The decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia [reaffirming their support of Judge Kellam’s decision] leaves the case devoid of a properly presented federal question.” With this action, the United States Supreme Court effectively upheld a state’s right to restrict marriage between the races. A decade passed before the Court again considered racial classifications in marriage law. In Loving v. Virginia, another challenge to Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, the Court struck down antimiscegenation statutes, removing the last legally-enforced barrier facing Americans of color.

June 12, 1997 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Loving. As scholars commemorate Loving, it seems appropriate to reconsider Naim to understand the longevity of antimiscegenation statutes. Naim v. Naim represents more than a historical footnote to Loving: Naim reveals the complex interplay of eugenical ideology, constitutional jurisprudence, the internal politics of the Supreme Court, and the Court’s relationship to American society. Indeed, Naim illustrates that the line between “principle and expediency” in Supreme Court adjudication was less sharply defined and more hotly contested than many commentators have imagined. Both contemporary and subsequent historical treatments ascribe particular importance to Naim only in so far as its disposition appeared to reflect the Justices’ concern that any action on interracial marriage would exacerbate tensions created by the Brown decisions.

This paper, however, argues for a reassessment of Naim v. Naim‘s significance on two grounds. First, digging beneath surface impressions one sees that Naim, while sharing a kinship with other antimiscegenation cases, belongs also within the rarefied family of eugenics case law that began with Buck v. Bell and appeared to end with Skinner v. Oklahoma. Earlier antimiscegenation laws in Virginia, like many that persisted in other states, based their strictures not upon a “science” of racial improvement, but on the splenetic racism and negrophobia of the Redemption Era. Virginia eugenicists, however, promoted the Racial Integrity Act in the name of scientifically-validated social engineering. The Racial Integrity Act’s enactment as a scientific measure to preserve the state’s “health” supplied the legal justifications that upheld the statute in Naim. Eugenics provided the state with a “rational basis” for the exercise of its police power in restricting interracial marriage. Ultimately, eugenical social policy used science to garner legal imprimatur for the deep-seated southern cultural taboo against interracial sexuality.  This certification formed a bond between statutory social control and the law that proved difficult to break.

Legal debates concerning the confluence of judicial review and social policy suggest a second reason Naim should be reconsidered. Probing the records of various Supreme Court justices, it becomes apparent that their actions in disposing of Naim did not represent simply a collective dodge. Behind closed doors, the justices waged a pitched battle. Ultimately the issue was resolved not only in light of political considerations, but also as a result of the swirling jurisprudential debate over what Morton J. Horwitz terms “the central ideological question before the Supreme Court” in the twenty years after World War II: the debate between judicial activism and judicial restraint. In this intra-court battle, the personality and beliefs of Justice Felix Frankfurter take center stage. Examining the synergy between the Racial Integrity Act’s eugenical rationale and jurisprudential debates trammeling the Supreme Court helps explain why it took another eleven years to strike down antimiscegenation statutes.

This reconsideration of Naim v. Naim proceeds in four parts. First, a brief history of eugenics and the elite Virginians who integrated eugenical precepts into the legal, medical, and educational infrastructures of Virginia provides Naim‘s background. Parts II and III focus on the progress of Naim through the Portsmouth Circuit Court and the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, respectively. These sections develop the social and cultural history of Naim v. Naim, elucidating the ways in which southern sentiment regarding issues of class, race, and gender aligned with thirty year-old eugenical precepts and the law to determine the case. Special attention is given to how eugenical arguments cropped up explicitly in the statements of counsel, the state attorney general, and the opinion of the courts. Part IV takes up the battle over Naim within the United States Supreme Court, revealing the intra-court politics that decided the case. The paper concludes with a brief consideration of Naim v. Naim‘s role as precedent for the lower court decisions in Loving v. Virginia. The conclusion assesses how the Racial Integrity Act failed only when two conditions were met: 1) counsel directly challenged the “rational basis” of the eugenical underpinnings of the Racial Integrity Act; and, 2) the doctrinal/theoretical debate among the Supreme Court justices was resolved, in part as a result of Felix Frankfurter’s retirement, in favor of judicial activism for civil rights. The fulfillment of these two conditions set the stage for the recalibration of legal and cultural scales…

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