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Landmark Decisions (Part 1)

Landmark Decisions


Supreme Error
In 1856, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Scott v. Sandford. That case involved Dred Scott, a slave, who sued in federal court for his and his family's freedom. Scott contended, in part, that his family became free when they were taken into the free portion of the Louisiana territory where Congress had prohibited slavery.The Supreme Court dismissed the suit on jurisdictional grounds. Chief Justice Taney explained that the parties were not citizens of different states because the Constitution did not consider blacks to be citizens. The Chief Justice also added that the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in certain parts of the Louisiana Territory, violated the Fifth Amendment because it deprived slaveowners of their property without the due process of law.

The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) finally set aside this decision.

Full Opinion
arrow Scott v. Sandford.

Free at Last
The Union triumph sparked a brief expansion in civil rights. The three amendments added to the Constitution during this time abolished slavery in the United States once and for all, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and prohibited States from denying persons the equal protection of the laws and the right to vote on account of race.

Civil War Amendments
arrow 13th Amendment (1865).
arrow 14th Amendment (1868).
arrow 15th Amendment (1870).

An Early Triumph
In 1879, the Supreme Court handed down a pair of decisions that offered some hope. In Strauder v. West Virginia and Ex Parte Virginia, the Court held that states violated the 14th Amendment when they excluded persons from serving on juries on account of their race.

Full Opinion
arrow Ex Parte Virginia.
arrow Strauder v. West Virginia.

From Slavery to Segregation
In 1883, the Supreme Court, once again, obstructed the path to equality. In the Civil Rights Cases, the Court struck down those provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which entitled all persons to the full and equal enjoyment of public accomodations. The Court ruled that Congress did not have the authority under the 14th Amendment to enact such a law, explaining that the 14th Amendment was intended to right wrongful acts by states, not private individuals. Justice Harlan was the lone dissenter.

A decade later, the Supreme Court took another step backwards. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court found that a Louisiana statute requiring separate intrastate railcars for the white and colored races neither abridged the privileges or immunities of the colored man, nor deprived him of the equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment. This decision legitimized the segregation of American society under the "Separate but Equal" doctrine.

Justice Harlan, again the lone dissenter, argued that the Constitution was color-blind. He regretted the Court's conclusion that states may regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights based solely on race. He also predicted, "In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case."

Full Opinion
arrow The Civil Rights Cases
arrow Plessy v. Ferguson


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