legal case study

After reading the case, “The Fedral Government and Racial Discrimination” answer the questions in a 6-paragraphs essay.

The Federal Government and Racial Discrimination

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Civil Rights Cases, 1883

Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 sought to “recognize the equality of all men before the law,” regardless of race, color, or “previous condition of servitude.” The Act stated that all citizens should have equal access to inns, theaters, and other public venues. Although the venues were privately owned, Congress considered them to be public. Penalties were listed in Section 2 of the Act. A person who denied anyone access to an inn or a theater on the basis of race or color could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined or jailed. Someone who violated the law could also be forced to pay $500 to the person who had been discriminated against. In 1883, five cases were brought before the Supreme Court in a group. They were called the Civil Rights Cases. All five involved defendants who had refused African Americans access to public venues. Two of the defendants were charged with denying African Americans accommodations at an inn or hotel. A third defendant allegedly denied a seat in Maguire’s theatre in San Francisco to an African American, and the fourth defendant was charged with denying a person of unstated race access to the Grand Opera House in New York. The fifth case was Robinson & Wife v. Memphis & Charleston Railroad Company. Robinson sued on the grounds that his wife had been denied access to the ladies’ car on a train because of her race.

Constitutional Issue

The question before the Court was whether the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was constitutional. No one disputed that African Americans had been denied access to public venues because of their race. The Supreme Court considered whether Congress had the authority to pass laws preventing such discrimination. The plaintiffs argued that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments gave Congress the power to prevent individual acts of discrimination. The defendants claimed that Congress had no such power.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

The Court ruled with an 8 to 1 majority that the first and second sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were unconstitutional. The Court ruled that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments did not give Congress the right to legislate the actions of individuals. The Fourteenth Amendment granted Congress the power to prohibit states from passing laws denying citizens equal protection. However, Congress did not have the power to make its own law prohibiting discrimination and then prosecute individuals who violated that law. By doing so Congress violated the rights of both states and individual citizens. Justice Joseph P. Bradley wrote for the majority.

“[The Civil Rights Act] steps into the domain of local jurisprudence, and lays down rules for the conduct of individuals in society towards each other…without referring in any manner to any supposed action of the State or its authorities,” Bradley stated. “Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject matter of the [Fourteenth] Amendment.”

Dissenting Opinion

Justice John M. Harlan dissented. He believed the Civil Rights Act was in line with the spirit of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which was to broaden individual rights. He stated that public venues “…are established and maintained under direct license of the law. The authority to establish and maintain them comes from the public.” He also stated that by enforcing the act, Congress did not unlawfully take power away from the states.


1. Why did the Court rule that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional?

2. What did the Fourteenth Amendment have to do with the Court’s decision?

3. Why did Justice Harlan think the Civil Rights Act was constitutional?

4. How did this ruling affect the rights of African Americans?

5. Do you agree with the Court’s decision or with Justice Harlan’s dissent? Give reasons for your answer.

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