The Slaughterhouse Cases: Decision Summary and Impact

circa 1895:  A view of St. Charles Street, showing the terraced exterior  of Kolb's Hotel, with streetcars and horsedrawn carriages in the street, New Orleans, Louisiana..  (Photo by P. L. Sperr/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the Slaughterhouse Cases (1872), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protected only those rights of federal citizenship and did not extend to the many rights granted by individual states. A state could therefore grant monopoly rights to some citizens while denying them to others without violating the U.S. Constitution.

Slaughterhouse was the first Supreme Court decision that applied the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The decision is best known for its narrow construction of the privileges and immunities clause and has been roundly criticized by Constitutional law commentators for rendering it essentially meaningless.

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Background

Between the 1830s and 1860s, cholera killed thousands in New Orleans. Local officials blamed, among other things, the 1,000 butchers who slaughtered beef upstream from the city. Animal entrails, blood, and waste floated downstream, contaminating the city's drinking water.

To address the problem, the Louisiana legislature passed a law in 1859 entitled, “An act to protect the health of the City of New Orleans, to locate the stock landings and slaughter-houses, and to incorporate 'The Crescent City Live-Stock Landing and Slaughter-House Company.'" That state law chartered a private corporation, the Crescent City Live-Stock Landing and Slaughter-House Company, and granted it a 25-year monopoly to run a slaughterhouse in the southern part of the city. All other slaughterhouses were closed, forcing all of the butchers in the city to work at Crescent City's operation for a fee.

A group of more than 400 butchers from the Butchers' Benevolent Association and other local butchers brought three lawsuits to prevent Crescent City's monopoly of the industry. In each case, the lower courts ruled in favor of Crescent City and denied injunctive relief. The Louisiana supreme court upheld the lower courts' rulings.

The plaintiffs appealed the judgments to the U.S. Supreme Court, which consolidated the cases. On December 1, 1872, in a 5-4 decision, the Court affirmed the state supreme court's judgment, holding that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments did not prohibit Louisiana from granting a state monopoly.

The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments

The Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibited slavery, was passed on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865. Section 1 reads as:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

The Fourteenth Amendment, which extended rights granted by the Bill of Rights to formerly enslaved people, was passed on June 13, 1866, and ratified on July 9, 1868. Section 1 states:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Opinion of the Court

Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, a Lincoln appointee, authored the majority opinion. His starting point was that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were, in his view, primarily intended to ensure “the freedom of the slave race, the security and firm establishment of that freedom, and the protection of the newly-made freeman and citizen from the oppressions of those who had formerly exercised unlimited dominion over him." Guided by this premise, the Court construed these two amendments very narrowly.

Justice Miller acknowledged that the state legislatures retained broad police powers to protect the health and safety of their populations and found that the Act was a valid exercise of those powers. The only question was whether the monopoly granted by the state pursuant to these powers nonetheless violated the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendments.

Involuntary Servitude

The butchers challenged the Act on four grounds. First, they argued that by setting conditions on how they could perform their trade, the Act created a condition of involuntary servitude in violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Court rejected this interpretation of “servitude" because, in its view, “the obvious purpose [of the Thirteenth Amendment] was to forbid all shades and conditions of African slavery." According to the Court, the amendment protected the civil rights of former slaves, not New Orleans butchers.

Equal Protection

Second, the butchers argued that in granting rights to some but not to others, the Act distinguished among its own citizens and thus denied them equal protection of the laws. The court rejected this argument as well, holding that in light of the history and purpose of the Civil War Amendments, the equal protection clause did not prohibit any legislation other than that which discriminated against Black people as a class.

Due Process

Third, the butchers argued that by stripping them of their right to practice their trade as they saw fit, the state had deprived them of property without due process of law. Once again, the Court summarily, almost dismissively, rejected this argument: “[U]nder no construction of [the due process clause] that we have ever seen, or any that we deem admissible, can the restraint imposed by the State of Louisiana upon the exercise of their trade by the butchers of New Orleans be held to be a deprivation of property within the meaning of that provision."

Privileges or Immunities

The butcher's fourth argument, and the one the Court devoted the most time to, was based on the privileges or immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They contended that freely pursuing one's trade was among the “privileges or immunities" protected by the clause against deprivation by state governments.

The Court rejected this argument as well. Justice Miller compared the language of the Fourteenth Amendment's privileges or immunities clause to the privileges and immunities of citizens clause of Article IV, Section 2, and pointed out that the latter spoke of the “several states," while the former spoke just of “the United States." He reasoned that this distinction meant that state citizenship and federal citizenship must be treated differently. Based on this, the Court construed the clause to protect only those rights that pertain to U.S. citizenship, not those granted by state citizenship.

The Court then provided a list of what those U.S. citizenship rights might be:

  • The right to assert claims against and transact business with the federal government
  • The right of free access to U.S. seaports
  • The right of free access to federal courts
  • The right to demand the care and protection of the federal government when on the high seas or within the jurisdiction of a foreign government
  • The right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances
  • The right to seek a writ of habeas corpus
  • The right to use the navigable waters of the United States
  • All rights secured to U.S. citizens by treaties with foreign nations
  • The right to become a citizen of any state by residing there

Dissents

Four justices disagreed with the majority opinion. They authored three separate dissenting opinions.

Justice Field

Justice Stephen Johnson Field, a Lincoln appointee, agreed that regulating slaughterhouses fell within the state's police power. He rejected the notion, however, that such a regulation could encroach on the rights and privileges of the citizen. Justice Field argued under the common law, “all monopolies in any known trade or manufacture are an invasion of these privileges, for they encroach upon the liberty of citizens to acquire property and pursue happiness."

Justice Bradley

Justice Joseph B. Bradley, a Grant appointee, concurred with Justice Field but wrote separately to emphasize that one of the privileges of citizenship, among others listed in the Bill of Rights, was the right to pursue a chosen occupation. A state could not deprive someone of this right by granting exclusive rights to another.

Justice Swayne

Justice Noah Haynes Swayne, a Lincoln appointee, concurred with both Justices Field and Bradley. He wrote separately to point out that the Fourteenth Amendment and its privileges and immunities clause were intended by Congress and the states to transform the American government entirely, not just protect former slaves. He would have construed the amendment broadly to protect the fundamental rights of all citizens, including the New Orleans butchers.

Is the Decision Relevant Today?

Crescent City's victory was short-lived. By 1879, Louisiana had adopted a new constitution, which prohibited the state from granting slaughterhouse monopolies. However, the Court's narrow reading of the privileges or immunities clause opened the door for states to curtail individual rights through their police powers. This paved the way for Jim Crow laws in the post-Reconstruction South.

The Supreme Court spent much of the 20th century undoing the effect of the Slaughterhouse Cases through what became known as the incorporation doctrine. According to this doctrine, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment “incorporates" many of the rights granted by the Bill of Rights, making them applicable to the states.

The privileges or immunities clause of the 14th amendment looked to be a dead letter entirely until recently. Justice Clarence Thomas, a George H. W. Bush appointee, wrote a concurring opinion in the landmark case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization (2022), which overruled Roe v. Wade. He wrote that at least some of the rights recognized by the Court under the due process clause (such as the right to contraception, consensual sex, and same-sex marriage) might, in fact, be “privileges or immunities" protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. However, no other justice joined his concurring opinion.

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