Applicable solely to state action
First, the Court held that the guarantees of equal protection
and due process, given by §1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, apply
by their own terms solely to state action.
This holding remains valid today, at least in the sense that, in
the absence of congressional legislation, the courts will not
find conduct that is exclusively private to be violative of
these Fourteenth Amendment guarantees.
Congress without power
Secondly, the Court held that the grant to Congress in §5 of the
Fourteenth Amendment of the power to enforce these guarantees
did not authorize Congress
to regulate solely private conduct.
- Congress cannot regulate private rights
§5 "does not authorize Congress to create a code of municipal
law for the regulation of private rights .... "
- Congress can ONLY prevent states from interfering with 14th
The only lawmaking power given to Congress under §5 of the
Amendment, the Court held, was the ability to pass laws to
prevent the states, by their own action, from interfering with
Probably no longer the law
It is not clear whether this aspect of the Civil Rights Cases
remains good law, but it probably does not.
There is no case in which a majority of the Court has held, in a
single opinion, that §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment allows
Congress to reach purely private conduct.
But six Justices in Us. v. Guest, 383 U.S. 745 (1966), in two
separate opinions, argued that Congress has such power.
Thirteenth Amendment inapplicable
Lastly, the Court held that the statute could not be justified
as an exercise of the Thirteenth Amendment.
The Court conceded that that Amendment is applicable to private
as well as state conduct, since it prevents private individuals
from holding others in slavery.
But the Amendment by its terms
bars only "slavery [and]
involuntary servitude," and the Court took a narrow
view of this phrase.
Refusal to allow blacks to use public accommodations was simply
not a "badge of slavery."
This narrow view of what constitutes a "badge of slavery"
prohibited under the Thirteenth Amendment has clearly been
overruled, at least with respect to Congress' power to enact
legislation to enforce that Amendment (an enforcement power
given in §2 of the Amendment.)
But the Court has continued to take a narrow view of the
definition of slavery when analyzing state or private conduct
directly, where there is no relevant congressional statute.
Only conduct involving actual peonage (e.g., state laws
imprisoning workers who violate labor contracts) has so far been
held directly violative of the Amendment itself.
Since there was, in the majority's view, no satisfactory
constitutional basis for the 1875 Civil Rights Act, the Act was
Dissent - Justice Harlan
Justice Harlan objected to the majority's view of both the
Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments.
Thirteenth Amendment View
As to the Thirteenth, he believed that freedom from slavery
necessarily entailed not only the liberation from physical
bondage, but also the eradication of all "burdens and
disabilities" suffered by black people because of their race.
Therefore, he believed that Congress could prevent black people
from being denied, on grounds of race, those "civil rights"
which white people have.
In his opinion, these civil rights included the right to use
inns, public transport, and other public facilities.
Fourteenth Amendment view
Harlan pointed to a part of §1 that the majority ignored, the
provision that "[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United
States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of
the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
He believed that this section gave blacks state citizenship, and
that this grant of state citizenship in turn entitled them to
"exemption from race discrimination in respect of any civil
right belonging to citizens of the white race in the same
As in the case of the Thirteenth Amendment, he believed that
these civil rights included access to public accommodations.
Apart from this argument, Harlan also contended that railroad
companies, innkeepers, etc., since they serve the public and are
subject to state regulation, should be viewed as agents of the
state, so that their conduct constitutes state action for equal
protection and due process purposes.