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

By Robert J. Kaczorowski | Go to book overview

3 The Politics of Civil Rights
Enforcement in the Federal
Courts, 1866–1873

Given the expansive definitions of federal power they had formulated, the federal courts were relatively inactive in enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 during the last years of the 1860s. Since the conditions for which the Civil Rights Act was enacted existed in many parts of the former Confederacy, opportunities abounded in the South for the federal courts to enforce civil rights. In some places, statutes that discriminated against blacks were enforced by local judges in defiance of the Civil Rights Act. In other areas, statutes were impartial on their face, but local judges and juries acted in such a prejudicial manner that blacks and unpopular whites could not receive justice. Although the freedmen and white Unionists could not expect to receive justice or judicial enforcement of their civil rights in state courts, relatively little was done to bring their cases into the federal courts1

Several reasons explain the relative inactivity of the federal judiciary in protecting civil rights in the years immediately following the Civil War. Perhaps the most important reason was the Johnson administration's opposition to federal enforcement of civil rights. Racism, although important, was not the sole factor in the administration's aversion to the federal government's involvement in the protection of civil rights. The administration's political philosophy and political affiliations were equally decisive. Its commitment to states' rights and a Democratic Conservative political coalition rendered the federal enforcement of the civil rights of Southern blacks and Republicans at the expense of the local authority of Southern Democrats antithetical to its political interests and political values. These values and interests reinforced racial antagonisms.2

The Johnson administration's opposition to federal enforcement of civil rights must have discouraged even those federal officers who took seriously their responsibility for executing the congressional mandate to secure civil rights. The posture taken by the attorney general in his correspondence with United States attorneys and United States marshals inhibited their active involvement in civil rights issues. Cautious legal officers who requested instructions from the attorney general concerning civil rights enforcement policy received no

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