The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Slaughter-House Cases

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Edition of 1920. See also Slaughter-House Cases on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SLAUGHTER-HOUSE CASES arose out of laws passed in 1869 by the legislature of the State of Louisiana in an act intended to protect the public health in the city of New Orleans and to that end incorporating The Crescent City Live Stock Landing and Slaughter-house Company. The act gives to this company the sole right “to land, keep or slaughter any cattle, beeves, sheep, swine or other animals . . . within the city of New Orleans, or at any point or place . . .” on the east or west banks of the Mississippi River, opposite the corporate limits of the city. Included with this privilege, granted to this company and forbidden to all other persons, was the right to establish wharves for the landing of livestock and to levy wharfage on the stock landed at so much per head. This act was bitterly opposed by the butchers and cattle dealers, and after it went into effect an action was brought in the District Court and an injunction obtained on the ground that the law was unconstitutional; when the case was tried the court sustained the injunction and made it perpetual, on the ground that it was in opposition to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution (q.v.), and to the first and second sections of the State “Bill of Rights.” In delivering his opinion the judge (Collens) said as follows: “This law (1) prevents any freedom whatever; (2) walls up many miles of the shores of the river on both sides against an important branch of commerce; (3) vests as it were a private company with an ownership in one of the greatest ports of entry in the United States; (4) gives this company alone the authority to ‘establish wharves’ for vessels bringing livestock into the port of New Orleans; (5) yields it the ‘exclusive’ right of having one or more stock landings, with the ‘exclusive’ privilege of having landed at its wharves and landing places all animals intended for sale or slaughter in the parishes of Orleans and Jefferson; (6) authorizes it to determine at what points or places wharves, stock-landings, etc., may be erected; (7) grants it the power of levying wharfage not simply on the vessels, according to tonnage and time, but a round sum on the vessels, and a duty of 10 cents per head on large, and 5 cents per head on small beasts landed in this port; and (8) all this is made effective by penal clauses imposing fines, etc.” The judge declared that this was not only against the clauses named, but, surpassing police regulation, was also “a bold and well contrived regulation of commerce, compelling the coveted trade to flow into the channel, and leave the tribute in the coffers of this private monopoly,” and as such was in violation with both the provision in the Federal Constitution giving Congress the sole power to regulate commerce, and the act of Congress under which the State of Louisiana was admitted into the Union.

This decision, with others, some varying, which had been given in different District Courts, were the next year, 1870, carried into the Supreme Court of the State, and there the case was determined in favor of the defendant corporation, and all persons enjoined from interfering with the privileges granted to it under its charter. The opponents of the company then took the case into the United States Circuit Court, asking for a perpetual restraining injunction against it. This was granted on the sole ground that the act incorporating the company was in violation of the 14th Amendment of the Federal Constitution, the court disclaiming jurisdiction over any other of the issues raised. A writ of error was asked for and obtained, and on it the case was carried to the United States Supreme Court. Here, after being three times argued, a decision was delivered in 1873, recognizing the validity of the act and permitting the exercise of the powers conferred by it. The decision of the court on the various issues involved gave the case its great importance. It had been contended, in the first place, that the act was invalid because it created a monopoly, conferring privileges on a few persons to the exclusion of all others, and depriving a numerous class of citizens of the right to follow their usual employment. On this point the court decided that the act was within the police power of the legislature — “a power incapable of any very exact definition or limitation.” From the decision upon this point a minority composed of the chief justice and two associate justices dissented. The objection had been urged by the complainants that the act was a violation (1) of the 13th Amendment of the Federal Constitution, by creating a kind of involuntary servitude; and (2) of the 14th Amendment, because it abridged ihe privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, deprived the plaintiffs of their property without due process of law and denied them equal protection under the law. The court held that the term “servitude” in the 13th Amendment means personal servitude and that the purpose of the amendment was to guard against a continuance of slavery in any form, and that the amendment had not been violated by the act under discussion. As regarded the 14th Amendment the court perceived and established the difference between a citizen of the United States and a citizen of a State; it defined the rights and privileges of these two classes of citizens and held that only a citizen of the United States was placed under the protection of the Constitution by the clause in the 14th Amendment. The court further held that no other clause of the amendment was violated, the act of the legislature of Louisiana not being a deprivation of property, nor a denial of the equal protection of the laws, within the meaning of the amendment.

The minority of the court held (1) that the act of the legislature was of itself a step beyond the police powers of the State, and, therefore, was void; (2) that the act was also void under the 14th Amendment since it is in the meaning of that amendment that all acts of a State legislature shall respect the equality of rights of its citizens to follow the ordinary pursuits of life which equality of rights, the minority held, had been contravened.

The decisions of this case are considered extremely important because they not only discuss the police powers of the States, but because of the interpretations of the clauses in the Federal Constitution brought into issue. The case is reported in 16 Wall. 36, Supreme Court reports.