Thursday, August 26, 2010

14th Amendment and Original Intent

Dred Scott
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney
The 14th Amendment was initially intended to provide the newly-freed slaves with access to rights as citizens that had been denied them due to their former status as slaves. Since the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, rendered in 1857, African Americans had "no rights any white man was bound to respect," in the words of the decision's main author, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. As we saw in the video presentation, however, the interpretation of the Supreme Court after the 14th Amendment was ratified was immediately extended to include the rights of other people--and other entities.

Slaughterhouses, San Francisco, 1906
New Orleans, 1869
The first case in the video presentation, in fact, had little to do with determining whether an individual's rights as a citizen were being violated; in the Slaughterhouse Cases, white butchers in New Orleans (or their lawyers, more accurately) claimed  their rights as citizens were violated because their own slaughterhouses were closed and they were forced to buy meet from a single slaughterhouse that the state had granted a monopoly to--and which had to charge prices that were also regulated by the state. The plaintiffs contended that their rights as citizens were violated because their property was taken (their slaughterhouses) without due process proceedings.

Justice Samuel F. Miller
Justice Stephen J.Field
Writing for a slim 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel F. Miller contended that the 14th Amendment was only meant to protect the rights of former slaves, and that it only affected those rights related to national citizenship, not the right of states to exercise their regulatory powers. In a sweeping and influential dissent, Justice Stephen J. Field argued that Congress had, in fact, meant the amendment gave government broader powers than Miller's opinion found for; Fields looked to enable the federal government to stop states from regulating business interests like slaughterhouses--and a much more important economic entity during this time period, railroads. Fields' dissent, rather than Miller's majority opinion, proved  to be more influential on future decisions of the Supreme Court regarding the 14th Amendment.

The second and third cases discussed during the video presentation were two closely-related cases that the Court decided together. Strauder v. West Virginia and Ex Parte Virginia involved excluding African Americans from jury service because of their race. In both cases, the Supreme Court decided that these were in clear violation of the 14th amendment, and found for the plaintiffs. These cases were argued within the first two decades of the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868; the Slaughterhouse Cases in 1873 and Strauder and Ex Parte Virginia in 1879. A third case, decided in 1896, was even more significant, however.

Homer Plessy
Plessy v. Ferguson greatly restricted the rights of African Americans for the first half of the 20th century. Homer Plessy, with the assistance of a number of railway companies (who were hoping to avoid the added expense of having to run "Jim Crow" passenger cars in the South) sued the state of Louisiana over  the requirement for African Americans to be restricted to a separate railroad car. In an 8-1 decision, the court held that the 14th Amendment was only meant to provided African Americans with political equality--and not social equality. For practical purposes, this meant that blacks could not blatantly be excluded by race in political life (they were instead excluded via practices literacy tests and poll taxes--which often excluded poor whites during these early years, as well). The Court held, however, that blacks could be discriminated against in private life; where they could buy a home, whether they could rent a hotel room, and whether they could be restricted to certain railroad cars. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the majority of the court decided that the 14th Amendment was not meant to intrude in these "private" areas of life. In justification, the Court pointed out that the passage of the Amendment did not end the practice of segregated schools. As long as accommodations were "equal," the Court held that there was no violation of the 14th Amendment, and that there was nothing inherently inferior in being forced to use separate facilities.

In a stinging dissent, former slave owner Justice John Marshall Harlan held
Justice John Marshall Harlan
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.
 Harlan  had earlier dissented in the Civil Rights Cases, which was handed down in 1883. The Civil Rights decision invalidated the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, or former condition of servitude in private accommodations. The Court decided that while Congress could end the condition of servitude, and essentially take slave owners' property without due process or compensation (by ending slavery), they could not prevent private citizens provide equality of service in non-governmental situations.

Its wide applicability has made the 14th Amendment a vital piece of law since its ratification in 1868. Besides its importance in determining which people receive the full rights, privileges, and immunities of citizenship, the 14th Amendment is also at the heart of the dispute over the role of the federal government in ensuring the rights of individuals. Before ratification of the 14th Amendment, many people believed that in fact the states were a safeguard against the tyranny of a powerful central government; that is the basis for republicanism (with emphasis upon the small "r"). Most republicans before the Civil War were also advocated of "states rights," and the superiority of the states over the federal government. This dispute over the role of the federal government in attempting to ensure the rights of all without discrimination has remained in contention throughout the 20th century--and into the 21st

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