Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Today in Civil Rights History: Decision in Civil Rights Cases announced

On October 15, 1883, the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Civil Rights Cases, holding that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments did not grant Congress the authority to prohibit racial discrimination by private actors.The Court was asked to consider the constitutionality of the provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that granted to all persons "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."

In an 8 to 1 decision, the Court said that the Fourteenth Amendment granted Congress the authority to regulate only state government action, but that private actors' conduct was exclusively within the province of the states (known as the state action doctrine). According to the Court, "The wrongful act of an individual, unsupported by any such authority is simply a private wrong, or a crime of that individual...but if not sanctioned in some way by the State, or done under State authority, [the wronged party's] rights remain in full force, and may be vindicated by resort to the laws of the State for redress." This limitation confirmed that private actions were beyond the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Likewise, the Court held that the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited only the "obliteration and prevention of slavery"; racial discrimination by private actors was "an ordinary civil injury properly cognizable by the laws of the state" and did not amount to a "badge of slavery." Thus, the Act's provision was not protected by the Thirteenth Amendment, either.

Justice Harlan was the sole dissenter in the case. As one scholar has noted, "On his view, providers of public accomadations had only a limited right to refuse to deal with anyone because...they held themselves open to deal with everyone."

Nevertheless, the state action doctrine remains in effect to this day--the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to the actions of state goverment (with a few exceptions). However, as constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky has said, the "restrictive interpretation of Congress's powers under the Thirteenth Amendment has been overruled in later cases, and it is now clearly established that Congress has broad powers under this provision to prohibit private raction discrimination."

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