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The Civil Rights Cases Essay, Research Paper

The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was an effort of the Post-Civil War Congresses to enforce civil rights throughout the United States. It was a part of the Reconstructionists to eliminate racial discrimination throughout the United States and this Act was one form to attempt to accomplish this. They took the authority to pass this Act from Section 5 of the 14th Amendment. They interpreted that section to allow the Congress the power to define as well as enforce the rights established by the 14th Amendment. When the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was tested by the Supreme Court it held that interpretation of the amendment and thus the Act was unconstitutional, and in passing the Act overstepped the power granted by the amendment to Congress. The ruling and the dissent to this opinion of the Court looked to four main constitutional issues to support their findings: civil and social rights, implied and expressed powers, federal supremacy and state sovereignty, and finally strict and broad interpretations.

One of the issues exhibited in the Civil Rights Cases was the protection of civil rights versus the protection of what has been deemed as social rights. The argument of Justice Bradley indicted that the 13th and 14th Amendment can only be looked to for the protection of civil rights and expansion of these protections to social rights would be outside the scope of the Constitution. The protection of these rights instead fell to the States and their authority to legislate their own domestic affairs. Civil rights are identified as those safeguarded by the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution (the essential rights of life, liberty, and property) against State infringement, and therefore cannot be breached by acts of individuals. Social rights or protection against discrimination, however, does not fall within the scope of the US Constitution. The imposition of an individual into the rights of an injured party, if not sanctioned in some way by the State, is a private wrong. Thus the injured party?s rights remain, and the individual must look to laws of the state to vindicate a redress of their grievances. The federal government does have jurisdiction from the 13th Amendment to create laws to protect citizens against involuntary servitude. Any such act whether committed by an individual sanctioned by the State or not falls under the scope of the 13th Amendment and can be legislated; however, denial of admission to an inn, public conveyance, or place of public amusement cannot in any form be construed as servitude thus cannot be legislated by the 13th Amendment.

Justice Harlan?s sole dissenting opinion argued to the contrary of the majority opinion stating that social rights could be in fact be construed as of public consequence. He pointed to the case Munn v. Illinois where the court found in a 7-2 decision that where the public has a definite and positive interest in a business, they have a right to regulate the operations of that business. ?The law may therefore regulate, to some extent, ? he reasoned ?the mode in which they shall be conducted.? He went on to say ?the public have rights in respect of such places, which may be vindicated by the law. It is consequently not a matter purely of private concern.? The Congress must have the authority to legislate on rights and privileges granted to its citizens by the Constitution in order to prevent those rights from being tarnished.

Another issue at arms in the decision was the extracting of implied or expressed powers from the Constitution in regards to the federal government. Justice Bradley argued that Congress in passing the Civil Rights Act 1875 overstepped the power granted to it by the US Constitution. Congress can create legislation over a subject if they are accompanied by an express or implied denial of such power to the states. For example, Congress has the sole power to regulate commerce, he said, and in that can regulate states and individual actions. Congress, however, cannot create legislation when the subject is not included in the general power of Congress. Congress then can only regulate the States in a corrective measure, ?to counteract and redress the operation of such prohibited State laws or proceedings of State officers.? Using the same argument for legislating civil and social rights under 13th Amendment Congress has the expressed power to legislate over all incidents of slavery and involuntary servitude whether by individuals or the State. In the 14th Amendment no such power exists and legislation, as already argued, can only be corrective in nature.

Justice Brennan pointed out that the Court had previously always given a broad and liberal construction to the Constitution to allow Congress, by legislation, to enforce the very rights granted by the same document. This implied power, historically recognized by the Court, allows Congress to enforce the provisions of the amendment so it can protect the rights granted. It is for Congress, he stressed, not the judiciary to say which legislation is needed and the Court cannot ?enter the domain of legislative discretion to dictate the means which Congress shall employ the exercise of its granted powers.? The Court had previously allowed that same discretion to protect the rights of the white slave owners which the upholding of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The constitutionality of the act depended on the implied power of Congress to enforce the master’s rights. The Court, in Ableman v. Booth pronounced that power to be fully within the bounds and construction of the Constitution of the United States. Even though his authority was questioned in Priggs v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by the attorney general, who noted that for the government to assume authority to legislate on the subject of fugitive slaves was a ?dangerous encroachment on State sovereignty,? it was disregarded by the Court. The Civil Right Act of 1875 was passed into law, according to Brennan, only to achieve what had already been protected for white citizens in every other state in the union.

Another Constitutional argument, which was also discussed extensively in the South Carolina nullification, is the issue of state sovereignty versus federal supremacy. Justice Bradley noted that the law makes no mention whatsoever of any prevention against violation by the States of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and within the language of the Amendment that is the only allowable form of legislation. Therefore, the entire law should be deemed unconstitutional. He claims that the assumption for the law to be constitutional is if the States are forbidden to legislate on a particular subject, and power is then given to Congress to enforce the prohibition, that gives Congress power to legislate generally on the subject and not merely power to provide modes of atonement against such a State action. This assumption, according to Bradley, is incorrect and is in violation of the 10th Amendment that declares powers not delegated to the federal government, nor prohibited from the States, are reserved to the States or to the people. The law instead applied equally to all states, regardless of their current enforcement and safeguards against individual violations, and steps into the domain of local jurisprudence. It supercedes the states constitutionally given right to govern its private entities and police their actions. This power is not given to Congress within the boundaries of the 14th Amendment, but is given, as previously mentioned, in the confines of the 13th Amendment. In that case, the federal government has to power to legislate regardless of the current legislation of the states as to the issue of slavery and involuntary servitude. Since these cases, however, cannot be construed in any matter to be held as issues of slavery the 13th Amendment thus does not apply.

Justice Harlan, however, notes that the States right to legislate domestic affairs is not infringed upon with the enforcement of this law. It simply recognizes the enlarged powers conferred on the federal government by the two amendments. The States still retain their right to regulate the civil and social rights of its citizens; however, it is not subject to the expressly granted power of Congress to enforce to provisions of the 14th Amendment by legislation if deemed necessary. For Congress to be held from protecting the very rights that are the principle of Republican citizenship the foundations upon national supremacy rests will be greatly disturbed. It will allow, he added, for the very rights and freedoms of American citizenship to be in jeopardy while previously those same rights were afforded without any indecision to white slave owners in the protection of slavery.

One of the most common issues in US Supreme Court cases is the conflict of strict versus broad constructional interpretations. This is previously illustrated in the Dred Scott case where in Justice Taney?s opinion he stressed the strict interpretation of the word citizen in accordance with slaves (free or not). This same interpretation is implemented in Justice Bradley?s interpretation of the 14th Amendment. The Amendment specifically states that ?no state shall make or enforce any law? and makes no mention of the regulation individual or private wrongs. Therefore according to Bradley, this reserves the right to create such legislation to the states, and any other interpretation exceeds the boundaries of the amendment. He relies in his argument of strict conservatism on many of the same issues previously mentioned. First of all, any abridging of the protected rights of a citizen by an individual not affiliated with the state is a private wrong, and correction and repercussion of that wrong lies in the power of the state. If the laws of the State do not correct the wrong, then that State is held in violation of the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment is only to be corrective in nature and does not encompass regulation of the social rights of citizens. This power to regulate discrimination is also not found in the 13th Amendment, which only allows Congress the power to prevent the practice of slavery and involuntary servitude, by legislation. All of these arguments exist in part in the constitutional issues previously mentioned. The strict construction argument that Justice Bradley relies upon is the fundamental argument of the case as it was in the Dred Scott decision.

The most convincing and powerful arguments of Justice Harlan exist in his basis for the loose interpretation of the Constitution, the spirit upon which the amendments were intended.

The opinion in these cases proceeds, it seems to me, upon grounds entirely too narrow and artificial. I cannot resist the conclusion that the substance and spirit of the recent amendments of the Constitution have been sacrificed by a subtle and ingenious verbal criticism. It is not the words of the law but the internal sense of it that makes the law: the letter of the law is the body; the sense and reason of the law is the soul.

Harlan felt the Court in its opinion abandoned the familiar rule that the full effect be given to the intent with which the amendment was adopted. To illustrate the basis of this argument he pointed to Chief Justice Marshall?s words in his opinion in McCullock v. Maryland which established the precedent of judicial review, the basis of the power of the Supreme Court. Justice Marshall noted that the national legislature must be allowed the discretion to ?enable it to perform the high duties assigned to it in the manner most beneficial to be people.? This doctrine should not be abandoned now, Justice Harlan said, when the issue involved is not dealing with master?s rights, but the protection of the very rights of citizenship that embody freedom. The 14th amendment was created for a purpose to ensure equal rights to all citizens so that they may exercise those rights. That purpose, interpreting the amendment so it most benefits the people, grants Congress the power to enforce its provisions by appropriate legislation. ?No interpretation of the words in which those powers are granted can be a sound one,? Harlan strongly urges, ?which narrows down their ordinary import so as to defeat those objects.?

The ruling in the Civil Rights Cases still holds true today. If the state does not assist the discrimination against another individual it is purely a matter between the two individuals, and subject to the laws of the state. It is one of the few examples of the prevalence of state sovereignty in modern times disregarding the recent trend of the assertion of national supremacy. Though the famous argument of Justice Harlan?s opinion that the Constitution should be interpreted to the spirit of which it was intended seems to be the prevailing opinion of the day. It allowed for the expansion of civil rights in gay rights, AIDS discrimination, etc. The fundamental argument of the case strict versus loose construction continues to be a battle fought in the country, and it seems imminent that with the election (mostly likely) of President Bush and era of a more conservative court will begin.


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