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

By Robert J. Kaczorowski | Go to book overview

1 Judicial Interpretations
of National Civil Rights
Enforcement Authority,
1866–1873

Between the years 1866 and 1873, a legal theory of national civil rights enforcement authority emerged in the courts of the United States that manifested a revolutionary impact of the Civil War upon the constitutional and legal structure of American federalism. The constitutional grounding of this theory was the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments; its first expression was the product of judicial interpretations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, of the concept of United States citizenship, and of the national government's authority to fix the status and to secure the fundamental rights of American citizens.

The legal theory of national civil rights enforcement authority affirmed by judges may be succinctly stated. Judges defined United States citizenship under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments as the status of freemen. They equated the rights of United States citizenship to the natural rights of freemen. Judges reasoned that, since natural rights were now secured by the United States Constitution to United States citizens as such, Congress possessed plenary authority to protect these rights in whatever manner it deemed appropriate, consistent with the Constitution. The Constitution therefore authorized Congress to confer upon the federal courts primary jurisdiction directly to enforce these fundamental rights and directly to punish their violation. In short, the legal theory of national civil rights enforcement authority under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments posited a virtually unlimited national authority over civil rights.

The primacy of national civil rights enforcement authority was a revolutionary legal theory because the states had traditionally determined the status and rights of individuals and provided for their security. For example, Southern states before the Civil War legally sanctioned slavery and defined in law the status of Afro-American slaves as chattel, virtually without any rights recognizable in law. Northern as well as Southern states relegated free blacks to a second-class citizenship by legally withholding from them some of the basic rights that state statutes extended to white citizens as “inalienable rights” of freemen. At the same time the states functioned as the traditional guardians of life, liberty, and property. This guardianship was exercised through state institutions, statutes,

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