In Gibson v. Mississippi (1896) the US Supreme Court upheld Mississippi’s 1890 constitution and statutes providing for the qualification of electors and jury selection. In doing so, the court added Gibson to a line of cases narrowly interpreting the Reconstruction amendments, resulting in widespread discrimination against African Americans.
The case originated when John Gibson, an African American, was indicted by an all-white jury for the January 1892 murder of Robert Stinson, a white man. Gibson filed a motion to remove the case to federal court on the grounds that the jury was improperly selected, violating his constitutional right to equal protection and preventing him from receiving a fair and impartial trial. He asserted that the jury commissioners discriminated when selecting potential jurors and that jury selection should have occurred under the provisions of the Mississippi Code of 1880 rather than the Code of 1892, which was not adopted until after the date of the alleged murder. The later code added the requirement that jurors be qualified electors and pass the literacy test. .
The trial court refused to accept Gibson’s argument and denied his motion to remove. Gibson then requested that a special venire be summoned to try his case. The trial court summoned special jurors, but Gibson was unhappy with the notice used to summon them and filed a motion to quash the special venire. The trial court denied this motion as well, and the jury found Gibson guilty of murder. The Mississippi Supreme Court accepted the case on appeal and affirmed the trial court’s decision.
Gibson appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the jury commissioners discriminated when selecting the jury and therefore violated his right to equal protection, making it impossible for him to receive a fair and impartial trial in state court. He asserted that under those circumstances, removal to federal court was proper. The Court, in an opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan, held that Gibson’s motions to remove and to quash the special venire were properly denied because neither the constitution nor the laws of the state were facially discriminatory and that under those circumstances, the possibility that a state court might not enforce a defendant’s Fourteenth Amendment rights during a trial did not constitute grounds for removal, despite the fact that black citizens would not receive a fair and impartial trial.
The court also found that the trial court’s application of the Code of 1892 did not constitute improper ex post facto application of the laws. It noted that the Constitution of 1890 was in effect at the time of the alleged murder, and it required that jurors be qualified electors and pass the literacy test. It also provided for the selection of jurors from a list of registered voters. The court found that because the Constitution of 1890 contained the substantive provisions at issue, Gibson was unaffected by court’s application of the Code of 1892, which included largely procedural provisions that did not materially affect Gibson’s rights.
With regard to Gibson’s motion to quash the special venire, the court held that unless a state court criminal trial was conducted under a law that invaded or denied a defendant’s constitutional rights, it could not review errors in the method of selecting jurors.
In sum, according to the court, although the US Constitution forbade laws that were racially discriminatory, if discrimination resulted from the application of a law rather than the facial construction of a law, the victim had no judicial remedy. Gibson v. Mississippi is one in a line of cases, including Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Williams v. Mississippi (1898), that narrowly interpreted the Reconstruction Amendments, ultimately allowing states to strip African Americans of their civil rights.
- Gibson v. Mississippi 162 US 565 (1896)