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

By Robert J. Kaczorowski | Go to book overview

9 The Reinstitution
of Decentralized
Constitutionalism: The
Supreme Court and Civil
Rights, 1876

In 1876 the United States Supreme Court finally consented to resolve the decade-long judicial struggle over the scope of national civil rights enforcement authority. In retrospect, the Supreme Court's interpretations of the Reconstruction Amendments as guarantees of the civil rights of black Americans appear to have been predetermined by its 1873 Slaughter-House decision and Justice Bradley's 1874 opinion in Cruikshank. Both counsels' arguments and the Court's 1876 decisions were predicated upon the legal assumptions of these opinions. While hindsight is almost always clearer than foresight, the states' rights emphasis of most federal court civil rights decisions after 1873 combined with the Grant administration's cessation of civil rights enforcement must have suggested to contemporaries the probable outcome of the Supreme Court's deliberations.

However predictable the outcome, the need to resolve the constitutional questions surrounding the congressional civil rights program prompted proponents as well as opponents to seek a quick resolution in the Supreme Court. The Court's interpretation of the Reconstruction Amendments as they applied to black Americans would affect national policies. An adverse ruling could diminish the constitutional authority that permitted the Department of Justice and the federal courts to intervene in Southern affairs. The elimination of that authority held grave implications for the department's political fortunes and the subsequent nature of race relations. Defense counsel desired an early hearing because of the uncertain fate of their clients and their rising expectations of a favorable decision. United States attorneys urged the attorney general to advance civil rights cases on the Supreme Court's docket despite their pessimism about achieving a favorable decision. The Supreme Court yielded to the litigants' entreaties and accelerated the process by which the cases involving these issues were heard.1

The Court's determination of the authority of the federal government to enforce voting rights became entwined with its authority to enforce civil rights. Terrorist assaults on Southern blacks and white Republicans usually occurred

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