The Politics of Judicial Interpretation: The Federal Courts, Department of Justice, and Civil Rights, 1866-1876

By Robert J. Kaczorowski | Go to book overview
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Introduction to the Oceana
Publications Edition

American leaders of the 1860s and the 1870s greatly relied upon law and legal institutions to solve some of the nation's most important political problems. Indeed, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction is distinguished by the way in which politics affected the development of law, and the way in which law, in turn, influenced the contours of American politics.

The most urgent political issues leading to the Civil War involved the definition of American federalism and the division of legal authority between the national and state governments over the status of slaves. The North went to war in 1861 to establish as political reality the legal doctrine that the Union is perpetual and indestructible. The emancipation of slaves became a Union objective two years later. The Union's victories secured the nation against secession and emancipated the Southern slaves. These military victories, however, once again confronted the nation with the political questions that had led to the Civil War: which government, national or state, possessed primary legal authority to determine the status and enforce the rights of the citizens and inhabitants of the United States.

The Union's military victory seemed to resolve this question in favor of the national government. In the years following the Civil War, however, Southerners continued to resist national authority and emancipation. With the support of local and state governments, they opposed political groups and economically intimidated and physically assaulted individuals associated with the Union's Civil War objectives. The Southern defiance forced Congress to amend the Constitution and enact statutes to protect fundamental rights in order to implement the Union's Civil War objectives.

The adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and the various civil rights statutes was predicated on the primacy of national authority over the rights of citizens. These amendments and statutes gave federal officers and federal courts criminal jurisdiction over civil rights cases. This jurisdiction, previously held under state authority by state officers, was a novel one for the federal judiciary. Federal jurisdiction over criminal violations of citizens' civil

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