Julian Bond’s Day at the Supreme Court

Julian Bond, the legendary civil rights activist who died on Sunday at age 75, had his day at the Supreme Court on November 11, 1966. The previous year he had easily won his race for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives, but his new colleagues refused to seat him. Bond, a self-described pacifist, had been openly critical of the Vietnam War and the draft; he had expressed sympathy for those who refused to join the military. Georgia House members cited these statements as disqualifying him to serve. They claimed Bond’s statements prevented him from being able to swear his allegiance to the state and federal constitutions, which were requirements of serving in the legislature. Bond challenged his exclusion in court. He lost his first round when federal district court held that in refusing to sear him the House had not denied Bond of his constitutional rights. As his court battle dragged out over the following two years, eventually landing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Bond’s constituents elected him to the House two more times. Each time, the Georgia House refused to seat him.


At oral arguments in the Supreme Court in November 1966, with Bond watching from the front row of the audience, the justices were clearly concerned with the limits of federal judicial oversight of state legislative authority to define its membership. Yet this discomfort was more than balanced by their frustration with the sweeping arguments of the Georgia Attorney General, who was representing those opposed to Bond taking his seat. “Is that all you rely on?” asked an irritated Justice William Brennan after the lawyer read Bond’s statements criticizing the Vietnam War. Brennan questioned whether these statements amounted to the declared commitment to violating the law and disobeying the Constitution that the lawyer claimed they did. Justice Abe Fortas suggested that the lawyer’s arguments came “perilously close” to defining any opposition to the Vietnam War as an adequate basis for exclusion from the state legislature.


In Bond v. Floyd, Bond won in a unanimous decision at the Supreme Court. The Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren, held that the Georgia legislature had violated Bond’s First Amendment rights. “While the State has an interest in requiring its legislators to swear to a belief in constitutional processes of government,” Warren wrote, “surely the oath gives it no interest in limiting its legislators’ capacity to discuss their views of local or national policy.” Bond would serve in the Georgia House of Representatives until 1975, and then in the Georgia Senate until 1987.

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