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

By Robert J. Kaczorowski | Go to book overview

8 The Judicial Curtailment of
Civil Rights Enforcement,
1874–1875

The legal impact of the Slaughter-House Cases on the constitutional history of Reconstruction was not immediately clear to contemporary observers. Indeed, its impact on federal regulatory powers was interpreted in various and sometimes contradictory ways. One legal commentator, for example, condemned the decision because he feared that it would impede efforts to regulate monopolies. At the same time, another praised it because it affirmed the nation's authority to engage in such regulation.1

While the Slaughter-House decision was generally perceived as a revitalization of states' rights and a corresponding diminution in national authority, it left unanswered many questions relating to national civil rights enforcement authority. The decision, after all, involved a legal conflict between white butchers and a corporation rather than the protection of Southern blacks and white Republicans with which most lower federal court interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment were involved. The Supreme Court's emasculation of the amendment's citizenship and privileges and immunities clauses so contravened the virtual unanimity of lower federal court interpretations that contemporaries plausibly could have assumed that the Supreme Court did not intend its ruling to apply to civil rights violations arising from racial and political vendettas.

Even if one concedes the emasculation of these clauses as constitutional authority for national civil rights enforcement generally, the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment remained unexplored by the courts. The power to enforce civil rights that was eroded by the Supreme Court's interpretation of the respective rights of dual citizenship might conceivably have been restored through the due process and equal protection clauses. Indeed, it was upon the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that congressional supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 based Congress's constitutional authority to proscribe racial discrimination in places of public accommodations. Some of them even cited the Slaughter-House decision in defense of the bill's constitutionality.2

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