Civil Rights Cases

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Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)
the Supreme Court of the United States
84928Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883)the Supreme Court of the United States

United States Supreme Court

109 U.S. 3



On Certificate of Division from the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Kansas


In Error to the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of California


On Certificate of Division from the U.S. Circuit Court for the Western District of Missouri


On Certificate of Division from the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York


In Error to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Western District of Tennessee

 Argued: (Submitted) October Term, 1892. --- Decided: October 16, 1883

Court Documents

Civil Rights—Constitution—District of Columbia—Inns—Places of Amusement—Public Conveyances—Slavery—Territories

  1. The 1st and 2d sections of the Civil Rights Act passed March 1st, 1876, are unconstitutional enactments as applied to the several States, not being authorized either by the XIIIth or XIVth Amendments of the Constitution
  2. The XIVth Amendment is prohibitory upon the States only, and the legislation authorized to be adopted by Congress for enforcing it is not direct legislation on the matters respecting which the States are prohibited from making or enforcing certain laws, or doing certain acts, but is corrective legislation such as may be necessary or proper for counteracting and redressing the effect of such laws or acts.
  3. The XIIIth Amendment relates only to slavery and involuntary servitude (which it abolishes), and, although, by its reflex action, it establishes universal freedom in the United States, and Congress may probably pass laws directly enforcing its provisions, yet such legislative power extends only to the subject of slavery and its incidents, and the denial of equal accommodations in inns, public conveyances, and places of public amusement (which is forbidden by the sections in question), imposes no badge of slavery or involuntary servitude upon the party but at most, infringes rights which are protected from State aggression by the XIVth Amendment.
  4. Whether the accommodations and privileges sought to be protected by the 1st and 2d sections of the Civil Rights Act are or are not rights constitutionally demandable, and if they are, in what form they are to be protected, is not now decided.
  5. Nor is it decided whether the law, as it stands, is operative in the Territories and District of Columbia, the decision only relating to its validity as applied to the States.
  6. Nor is it decided whether Congress, under the commercial power, may or may not pass a law securing to all persons equal accommodations on lines of public conveyance between two or more States.

Statement of the Case[edit]

These cases were all founded on the first and second sections of the Act of Congress known as the Civil Rights Act, passed March 1st, 1875, entitled "An Act to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights." 18 Stat. 335. Two of the cases, those against Stanley and Nichols, were indictments for denying to persons of color the accommodations and privileges of an inn or hotel; two of them, those against Ryan and Singleton, were, one on information, the other an indictment, for denying to individuals the privileges and accommodations of a theatre, the information against Ryan being for refusing a colored person a seat in the dress circle of Maguire's theatre in San Francisco, and the indictment against Singleton was for denying to another person, whose color was not stated, the full enjoyment of the accommodations of the theatre known as the Grand Opera House in New York, "said denial not being made for any reasons by law applicable to citizens of every race and color, and regardless of any previous condition of servitude." The case of Robinson and wife against the Memphis & Charleston R.R. Company was an action brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Tennessee to recover the penalty of five hundred dollars given by the second section of the act, and the gravamen was the refusal by the conductor of the railroad company to allow the wife to ride in the ladies' car, for the reason, as stated in one of the counts, that she was a person of African descent. The jury rendered a verdict for the defendants in this case upon the merits, under a charge of the court to which a bill of exceptions was taken by the plaintiffs. The case was tried on the assumption by both parties of the validity of the act of Congress, and the principal point made by the exceptions was that the judge allowed evidence to go to the jury tending to show that the conductor had reason to suspect that the plaintiff, the wife, was an improper person because she was in company with a young man whom he supposed to be a white man, and, on that account, inferred that there was some improper connection between them, and the judge charged the jury, in substance, that, if this was the conductor's bona fide reason for excluding the woman from the car, they might take it into consideration on the question of the liability of the company. The case was brought here by writ of error at the suit of the plaintiffs. The cases of Stanley, Nichols, and Singleton came up on certificates of division of opinion between the judges below as to the constitutionality of the first and second sections of the act referred to, and the case of Ryan on a writ of error to the judgment of the Circuit Court for the District of California sustaining a demurrer to the information.

The Stanley, Ryan, Nichols, and Singleton cases were submitted together by the solicitor general at the last term of court, on the 7th day of November, 1882. There were no appearances, and no briefs filed for the defendants.

The Robinson case was submitted on the briefs at the last term, on the 9th day of March, 1883.

Argument for United States[edit]

Mr. Solicitor General Phillips for the United States.

After considering some objections to the forms of proceedings in the different cases, the counsel reviewed the following decisions of the court upon the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution and on points cognate thereto, viz.: The Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36; Bradwell v. The State, 16 Wall. 130; Bartemeyer v. Iowa, 18 Wall. 129; Minor v. Happersett, 21 Wall. 162; Walker v. Sauvinet, 92 U.S. 90; United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214; Kennard v.Louisiana, 92 U.S. 480; United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542; Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113; Chicago B. & C. R.R. Co. v. Iowa, 94 U.S. 155; Blyew v. United States, 13 Wall. 581; Railroad Co. v. Brown, 17 Wall. 445; Hall v. DeCuir, 95 U.S. 485; Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303; Ex parte Virginia, 100 U.S. 339; Missouri v. Lewis, 101 U.S. 22; Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 310.

Upon the whole these cases decide that,

  1. The Thirteenth Amendmenf forbids all sorts of involuntary personal servitude except penal, as to all sorts of men, the word servitude taking some color from the historical fact that the United States were then engaged in dealing with African slavery, as well as from the signification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which must be construed as advancing constitutional rights previously existing.
  2. The Fourteenth Amendment expresses prohibitions (and consequently implies corresponding positive immunities), limiting State action only, including in such action, however, actionby all Siate agencies, executive, legislative, and judicial, of whatever degree.
  3. The Fourteenth Amendment warrants legislation by Congress punishing violations of the immunities thereby secured when committed by agents of States in discharge of ministerial functions.

The right violated by Nichols, which is of the same class as that violated by Stanley and by Hamilton, is the right of locomotion, which Blackstone makes an element of personal liberty. Blackstone's Commentaries, Book I., ch. 1.

In violating this right, Nichols did not act in an exclusively private capacity, but in one devoted to a public use, and so affected with a public, i.e., a State, interest. This phrase will be recognized as taken from the Elevator Cases in 94 U.S., already cited.

Restraint upon the right of locomotion was a well-known feature of the slavery abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment. A first requisite of the right to appropriate the use of another man was to become the master of his natural power of motion, and, by a mayhem therein of the common law to require the whole community to be on the alert to restrain that power. That this is not exaggeration is shown by the language of the court in Eaton v. Vaughan, 9 Missouri, 734.

Granting that by involuntary servitude, as prohibited in the Thirteenth Amendment, is intended some institution, viz., custom, etc., of that sort, and not primarily mere scattered trespasses against liberty committed by private persons, yet, considering what must be the social tendency in at least large parts of the country, it is "appropriate legislation" against such an institution to forbid any action by private persons which in the light of our history may reasonably be apprehended to tend, on account of its being incidental to quasi public occupations, to create an institution.

Therefore, the above act of 1875, in prohibiting persons from violating the rights of other persons to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations of inns and public conveyances, for any reason turning merely upon the race or color of the latter, partakes of the specific character of certain contemporaneous solemn and effective action by the United States to which it was a sequel—and is constitutional.

Argument for Robinson and wife[edit]

Mr. William M. Randolph for Robinson and wife, plaintiffs in error.

Where the Constitution guarantees a right, Congress is empowered to pass the legislation appropriate to give effect to that right. Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 16 Peters, 539; Ableman v. Booth, 21 How. 506; United States v. Beese, 92 U.S. 214.

Whether Mr. Robinson's rights were created by the Constitution, or only guaranteed by it, in either event the act of Congress, so far as it protects them, is within the Constitution. Pensacola Telegraph Co. v. Western Union Tel. Co., 96 U.S. 1; The Passenger Cases, 7 Howard, 283; Crandall v. Nevada, 6 Wall. 35.

In Munn v. Illinois, 94 U.S. 113, the following propositions were affirmed:

"Under the powers inherent in every sovereignty, a government may regulate the conduct of its citizens toward each other, and, when necessary for the public good, the manner in which each shall use his own property."

"It has, in the exercise of these powers, been customary in England from time immemorial, and in this country from its first colonization, to regulate ferries, common carriers, hackmen, bakers, millers, wharfingers, innkeepers, etc."

"When the owner of property devotes it to a use in which the public has an interest, he in effect grants to the public an interest in such use, and must, to the extent of that interest, submit to be controlled by the public, for the common good, as long as he maintains the use."

Undoubtedly, if Congress could legislate on the subject at all, its legislation by the act of 1st March, 1875, was within the principles thus announced.

The penalty denounced by the statute is incurred by denying to any citizan "the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges" enumerated in the first section, and it is wholly immaterial whether the citizen whose rights are denied him belongs to one race or class or another, or is of one complexion or another. And again, the penalty follows every denial of the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges, except and unless the denial was "for reasons by law applicable to citizens of every race and color, and regardless of any previous condition of servitude."

Mr. William Y. C. Humes and Mr. David Posten for the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Co., defendants in error.