Pace v. Alabama (1883)

Can a State Ban Interracial Marriage?

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Background:

In November of 1881, Tony Pace (a black man) and Mary J. Cox (a white woman) were indicted under Section 4189 of the Alabama Code, which read:

If any white person and any negro, or the descendant of any negro to the third generation, inclusive, though one ancestor of each generation was a white person, intermarry or live in adultery or fornication with each other, each of them must, on conviction, be imprisoned in the penitentiary or sentenced to hard labor for the county for not less than two nor more than seven years.

Fast Facts: Pace v. Alabama

  • Decision Issued: January 29, 1883
  • Petitioner(s): Tony Pace and Mary J. Cox
  • Respondent: State of Alabama
  • Key Questions: Since the state law of Alabama had a different set of statutes covering adultery and fornication between a white couple and a black couple than that between an interracial couple, did the two year imprisonment of the interracial couple Tony Pace and Mary J. Cox violate their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment? 
  • Majority Decision: Justice Field
  • Dissenting: Unanimous decision
  • Ruling: The justices supported the state of Alabama, saying that both Cox and Pace were being equally punished for having a relationship. 

The Central Question:

Can a government prohibit interracial relationships?

Relevant Constitutional Text:

The Fourteenth Amendment, which reads in part:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The Court's Ruling:

The Court unanimously upheld the conviction of Pace and Cox, ruling that the law was not discriminatory because:

Whatever discrimination is made in the punishment prescribed in the two sections is directed against the offense designated and not against the person of any particular color or race. The punishment of each offending person, whether white or black, is the same.

Aftermath:

The Pace precedent would stand for an astonishing 81 years. It was finally weakened in McLaughlin v. Florida (1964), and eventually overturned completely by a unanimous court in the landmark Loving v. Virginia (1967) case.