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The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3

Supreme Court of the United States






State Action, Baselines, and the Problem of Private Power




State Action, Federalism, and Individual Autonomy

Quick Notes

The Civil Rights Cases involved the Civil Rights Act of 1875, in which Congress prohibited all persons from denying, on the basis of race, any individual's equal access to inns, public transportation, theaters and other places of public accommodation.  The statute was clearly applicable to private conduct.



o         Where a law steps into local jurisprudence and lays down rules for the conduct of individuals in society towards each other, without referring in any manner to any supposed action of the state or its authorities, it exceeds Congress scope of power because the wrongful act of an individual, unsupported by any such authority, is simply a private wrong, or a crime of that individual


Court - Holding

o         The 1875 Civil Rights Act, the Act was invalidated.

Book Name

Constitutional Law : Stone, Seidman, Sunstein, Tushnet.  ISBN:  978-0-7355-7719-0



o         Whether Congress had the power to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which prohibited all persons from denying, on the basis of race, any individual's equal access to inns, public transportation, theaters and other places of public accommodation?  No.




o         Five civil rights cases, before the Circuit Courts of United States for District of Kansas, California, Western Missouri, Southern New York, and Western Tennessee, were consolidated before the court in order to decide if the Civil Rights Act of 1875, 18 Stat. 335, §§ 1, 2 (1875), were constitutional.


o         The court struck down the challenged provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, holding that the United States Constitution did not provide Congress with such authority. The court thus declared the statutory provisions void as they applied to the operation in the states from which the actions arose.




Key Phrases


Pl -   United States

Df -   Stanley



o          Fourteenth Amendment rights are applicable only where state action is present.

o         The Civil Rights Cases involved the Civil Rights Act of 1875, in which Congress prohibited all persons from denying, on the basis of race, any individual's equal access to inns, public transportation, theaters and other places of public accommodation.

o         The statute was clearly applicable to private conduct.

o         The question before the Court was whether Congress had the power to enact such a statute.



Applicable solely to state action

o         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.

o         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

o         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.


Rule - Congress cannot regulate private rights

o         §5 "does not authorize Congress to create a code of municipal law for the regulation of private rights .... "


Rule - Congress can ONLY prevent states from interfering with 14th amend rights.

o         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 these rights.


Probably no longer the law

o         It is not clear whether this aspect of the Civil Rights Cases remains good law, but it probably does not.

o         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.

o         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

o         Lastly, the Court held that the statute could not be justified as an exercise of the Thirteenth Amendment.

o         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.

o         But the Amendment by its terms bars only "slavery [and] involuntary servitude," and the Court took a narrow view of this phrase.

o         Refusal to allow blacks to use public accommodations was simply not a "badge of slavery."



o         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.)

o         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.

o         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.


Statute invalidated

o         Since there was, in the majority's view, no satisfactory constitutional basis for the 1875 Civil Rights Act, the Act was invalidated.



Dissent - Justice Harlan

o         Justice Harlan objected to the majority's view of both the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth Amendments. 


Thirteenth Amendment View

o         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.

o         Therefore, he believed that Congress could prevent black people from being denied, on grounds of race, those "civil rights" which white people have.

o         In his opinion, these civil rights included the right to use inns, public transport, and other public facilities.


Fourteenth Amendment view

o         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."

o         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 State."

o         As in the case of the Thirteenth Amendment, he believed that these civil rights included access to public accommodations.

o         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.





Class Notes