Supreme Court Cases: Civil War / Reconstruction
When the Slaughterhouse Cases reached the Supreme Court on appeal in 1873, a majority of the Court began its decision by declaring that the meaning of the recently added Fourteenth Amendment needed to be considered in light of its original purpose: namely ensuring the freedom of former slaves. The majority then proceeded to define the scope of the Privileges and Immunities Clause very narrowly by arguing that the clause referred only to “very few express limitations which the Federal Constitution imposed upon the States-such, for instance, as the prohibition against ex post facto laws, bills of attainder, and laws impairing the obligation of contracts,” along with seeking the government’s protection while “on the high seas” as well as a general right to interact with government. However, the majority continued, the clause did not “bring within the power of Congress the entire domain of civil rights heretofore belonging exclusively to the States.” This severe limitation of the meaning of the privileges and immunities clause remains controversial and has never been overruled. As a result, the clause is hardly ever invoked in litigation today.
Next, the majority of the Court dismissed the due process of law claim. Even assuming a liberty interest in the right to pursue a lawful profession, the Court’s majority held that the legislature’s monopoly law was a legitimate regulation as a public health measure. Using its so-called “police power,” a state could legitimately decide that the concentration of the slaughterhouse business in one area would reduce the spread of disease associated with the slaughtering of animals.
A majority of the Supreme Court upheld the Illinois law and ruled that it was clearly within the police power of the state to protect public health, safety, and welfare. The majority reasoned that once private property is “affected with a public interest” the state may use its police power to regulate it in the public interest. For example, taxi companies are privately owned but their rates can be regulated by the state in the public interest. The case was considered progressive for its time because the usually conservative Supreme Court was noted for protecting property rights. Munn had argued that the power to set rates, if it existed at all, belonged to Congress under its constitutionally granted power to regulate interstate commerce. While conceding that interstate commerce was affected, the Court’s majority held that, in the absence of Congressional action, Illinois was free to do so under its police power.
By a vote of 8-1, with only Justice John Marshall Harlan I dissenting, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional on the grounds that the Amendment was added only to outlaw public, not private, discrimination. The Court’s majority introduced the concept of “state action” for purposes of showing discrimination. The majority pointed out that the amendment provides that “no state” shall deny a person the equal protection of the law. The majority interpreted this to mean that states may not adopt laws that discriminate on the basis of race, but the refusal of a hotel owner to serve African Americans is private discrimination, and the Amendment has nothing to do with that. In a powerful dissent, Justice Harlan wrote that in his view “the substance and spirit of the recent amendments to the Constitution have been sacrificed by a subtle and ingenious verbal criticism.”
In 1964, the U. S. Congress adopted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, like the 1875 Civil Rights Act, outlawed racial discrimination in public accommodations. However, recalling the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s majority in the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, this time Congress based its constitutional authority for passing the law not on the Fourteenth Amendment but on the commerce clause of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was challenged as to its constitutionality, unlike the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld its constitutionality.