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The Civil Rights Cases, 109 US 3 (1883) were a group of five US Supreme Court constitutional law cases. Against the famous dissent of Justice Harlan, a majority held the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional, because Congress lacked authority to regulate private affairs under the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the Thirteenth Amendment "merely abolishes slavery". The Civil Rights Act of 1875 had banned race discrimination in access to services offered to the public. The decision was effectively reversed in the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court from 1937, and finally by legislation under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Civil Rights Cases
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Decided 15 October, 1883
Full case name United States v. Stanley; United States v. Ryan; United States v. Nichols; United States v. Singleton; Robinson et ux. v. Memphis & Charleston R.R. Co.
Citations 109 U.S. 3 (more)
3 S. Ct. 18; 27 L. Ed. 835
Neither the Thirteenth nor Fourteenth Amendments empower Congress to safeguard blacks against the actions of private individuals. To decide otherwise would afford blacks a special status under the law that whites did not enjoy.[1]
Court membership
Chief Justice
Morrison Waite
Associate Justices
Samuel F. Miller · Stephen J. Field
Joseph P. Bradley · John M. Harlan
William B. Woods · T. Stanley Matthews
Horace Gray · Samuel Blatchford
Case opinions
Majority Bradley, joined by Waite, Miller, Field, Woods, Matthews, Gray, Blatchford
Dissent Harlan
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. XIII, XIV; Civil Rights Act of 1875
Superseded by
Civil Rights Act of 1964



Black American plaintiffs, in five cases from lower courts,[2] sued theaters, hotels and transit companies that refused to admit them, or had excluded them from "white only" facilities. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 had been passed by Congress and entitled everyone to access accommodation, public transport, and theatres regardless of race or color.[3] This followed the American Civil War (1860-1865), President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1 January 1863) to end slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (9 July 1868) which reads ‘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.’ To implement the principles in the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress had specified that people could not be discriminated against on grounds of race or color in access to services offered to the general public. The business owners contended that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was itself unconstitutional, and an Act of Congress should not be able to interfere with their private rights of property.


The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision by Justice Joseph P. Bradley, held that the language of the 14th Amendment, which prohibited denial of equal protection by a state, did not give Congress power to regulate these private acts, because it was the result of conduct by private individuals, not state law or action, that black people were suffering.[1] Section five empowers Congress only to enforce the prohibition on state action. Legislation by Congress on subjects which are within the domain of the state were, apparently, not authorized by the Fourteenth Amendment. Private acts of racial discrimination were simply private wrongs that the national government was powerless to correct.

Bradley J said the following, holding the Constitution did ‘not authorize Congress to create a code of municipal law for the regulation of private rights’, as distinct from ‘state’ laws. In effect, only state bodies were sufficiently ‘public’ so as to be regulated.

Justice Harlan dissented against the Court's narrow interpretation of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments for all five of the cases. He argued Congress was attempting to overcome the refusal of the states to protect the rights denied to African Americans that white citizens took as their birthright. Private railroads (Olcott v. Supervisors 1872 83 U.S. 678, 16 Wall. 694)[4] were by law public highways, and it was the function of the government to make and maintain highways for the conveyance of the public; that innkeepers have long been held to be "a sort of public servants" (Rex v. Ivens 1835 7 Car. & P. 213)[5] that had no right to deny to anyone "conducting himself in a proper manner" admission to his inn; and that public amusements are maintained under a license coming from the State. He also found that the lack of protection from the 1875 Civil Rights Act would result in the violation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, largely on the same grounds. Harlan J would have held the Civil Rights Act of 1875 valid, because people were left ‘practically at the mercy of corporations and individuals wielding power under public authority’. His judgment went as follows.


The decision met with public protest across the country, and led to regular "indignation meetings" held in numerous cities.[6] The Supreme Court decision severely restricted the power of the federal government to guarantee equal status under the law to blacks. State officials in the South took advantage of the eclipsed role of Congress in the prohibition of racial discrimination and proceeded to embody individual practices of racial segregation into laws that legalized the treatment of blacks as second-class citizens for another seventy years. The court's decision thus ultimately led to the enactment of state laws, such as Jim Crow Laws, which codified what had previously been individual adherence to the practice of racial segregation.[1] Several northern and western states however did not follow suit and began instead enacting their own bans on discrimination in public places.[7]

Harlan correctly predicted the decision's long-term consequences: it put an end to the attempts by Radical Republicans to ensure the civil rights of blacks and ushered in the widespread segregation of blacks in housing, employment and public life that confined them to second-class citizenship throughout much of the United States until the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.

Furthermore, "[i]n the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, the federal government adopted as policy that allegations of continuing slavery were matters whose prosecution should be left to local authorities only – a de facto acceptance that white southerners could do as they wished with the black people in their midst."[8]

The decision that the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Acts were unconstitutional has not been overturned; on the contrary, the Supreme Court reaffirmed this limited reading of the Fourteenth Amendment in United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598 (2000), in which it held that Congress did not have the authority to enact parts of the Violence Against Women Act.

The Court has, however, upheld more recent civil rights laws based on other powers of Congress. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 generally revived the ban on discrimination in public accommodations that was in the Civil Rights Act of 1875, but under the Commerce Clause of Article I instead of the 14th Amendment; the Court held it[ambiguous] to be constitutional in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964).

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c "Civil Rights Cases". The Free Online Law Dictionary. Farlex. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  2. ^ United States v. Stanley, United States v. Ryan, United States v. Nichols, United States v. Singleton, and Robinson v. Memphis & Charleston Railroad, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835.
  3. ^ "all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude".
  4. ^ Justia US Supreme Court Center
  5. ^ John E. H. Sherry (1993) The Laws of Innkeepers, Cornell University Press ISBN 0801425085
  6. ^ Alexander Tsesis, The Thirteenth Amendment and American Freedom: A Legal History; New York University Press, 2004; p. 74; ISBN 0814782760
  7. ^ "13th Amendment legal definition". Free Online Law Dictionary. Free Online Law Dictionary. Retrieved 23 October 2013. 
  8. ^ Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Douglas A. Blackmon, Anchor Books 2009, p. 93.


  • Tushnet, Mark (2008). I dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 45–68. ISBN 978-0-8070-0036-6. 

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