Loving v. Virginia

Loving versus Virginia is perhaps one of the most important court cases in the history of family law in the United States.  In 1967, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving fought and won a pitched court battle against the state of Virginia for the right to marry.  This case opened the door for interracial marriage in America and also marked a victory for civil rights in post-war America.

In June of 1958, Jeter, a 17-year old black woman, and Loving, a 23-year old white man, were high school sweethearts who wished to get married.  Unfortunately, interracial marriage was illegal in their home state of Virginia at the time.  They were forced to travel to Washington, D.C. for their nuptials.  After the wedding was over, they returned to their home state to the town of Central Point, Virginia.

The local police raided their house and found the couple sleeping.  They were promptly arrested on one count each of breaking Virginia’s interracial marriage law and for getting married outside of the state and coming back to Virginia.  The former was a felony charge for which the couple could be sentenced to spend up to five years in prison.  The judge found the couple guilty and gave them a choice of either spending a year in prison or moving out of state for at least 25 years.  The Lovings chose to leave.

The exiled couple moved to the District of Columbia but found life quite frustrating.  They were unable to travel together to Virginia and it was impossible to visit their families and friends who lived there.  Facing social isolation and financial hardship, the couple decided to fight the court’s decision with an appeal.  Mildred wrote a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1964 and he convinced her to talk to the ACLU, an organization dedicated to civil liberties.  The ACLU motioned that the judge’s decision in the 1958 case be dismissed on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

In 1965, the Virginia Supreme Court tried the Lovings’ appeal and upheld the original court’s decision.  Citing its own previous rulings, the court argued that as long as both marriage partners were punished equally, there was nothing unconstitutional about the 1958 court decision.  The Lovings again appealed the court’s decision – this time to the United States Supreme Court.

The Lovings’ lawyer gave their arguments to the Supreme Court in April, 1967 and the final decision came down on June 12.  The judges concluded that the 1958 ruling in Virginia was indeed unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.  The chief justice wrote that marriage was a fundamental right and the freedom to choose a marriage partner was protected under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The judges also agreed that the laws in Virginia that prevented interracial marriage were racist.

The implications of the Supreme Court ruling were significant.  Interracial marriages between men and women slowly increased.  As of 2010, nearly 10 per cent of marriages between men and women in America are interracial.  The Loving case also provided an argument in later years for the legalization of same-sex marriage.  Lawyers have argued that the case allows Americans to freely choose their marriage partner – regardless of race or sex.