Essay on Supreme Court And its Role During the Reconstruction Period

One of the major events of the Reconstruction Period was the addition of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments freed slaves, granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the U.S., and gave all citizens the right to vote. These amendments were intended to give the former slaves more rights, and many other groups of people, such as laborers and women, also looked to these amendments as protectors of their freedom. Even though these amendments were in place, people still faced oppression because of their race or gender. Several court cases during this time period involved people being deprived of their basic rights. In these court cases, they argued that their rights were protected by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment. However, the Supreme Court didn’t always rule in their favor. The Supreme Court’s interpretations of the amendments denied citizens their rights, but also affected the government’s control over the people by limiting the power of the Constitution. The Supreme Court cases of the Reconstruction period show that the Constitution is only as powerful as the Supreme Court makes it.

In the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, the Supreme Court made a decision that took away the power of the 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause. Louisiana passed a law that put a restriction on slaughterhouse operations so that it was limited to a single corporation. The Crescent City Livestock Landing and Slaughter-House Company became this single corporation and all other corporations were shut down. A group of butchers argued that their right to practice their trade was violated since the monopoly created involuntary servitude under the 13th Amendment and deprived them of liberty and property protected by the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled against the butchers, claiming that these Amendments were only created in order to make the rights of former slaves and white men equal. They also said that the 14th Amendment only protects the rights associated with federal citizenship, not state citizenship. The Supreme Court’s decision limited the protection of the Privileges and Immunities Clause to the rights outlined in the Constitution.

So, if the Constitution did not specify that a state had to grant special privileges (such as the right to start a slaughterhouse) to all of its citizens, the state law is constitutional. Today, many people consider the Slaughterhouse Cases to be an incorrect interpretation of the 14th Amendment. “Virtually no serious modern scholar—left, right, and center—thinks that Slaughter-House is a plausible reading of the Fourteenth Amendment," (qtd. in Levy) says Akhil Amar, a law professor at Yale.  Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor, also agrees with Amar: “The Slaughter-House Cases incorrectly gutted the Privileges or Immunities Clause.” (qtd. in Levy)The Slaughterhouse Cases showed how the interpretation of an amendment by the Supreme Court can make a huge difference in how the amendment functions.

Bradwell v. Illinois was the first case argued before the Supreme Court about the protection of women’s rights under the 14th Amendment. In 1873, Myra Bradwell wanted to practice law but the Illinois Bar Association would not let her because she was a woman. She argued that her right to practice law was protected under the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment, which says: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States.” (Bradwell v. The State)

The Supreme Court disagreed with Bradwell, saying that the Privileges or Immunities Clause didn’t protect a profession. Justice Miller said: “This right in no sense depends on citizenship of the United States.” (Bradwell v. The State) Justice Bradley’s opinion on the case is that “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life... the paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother.”  (Bradwell v. The State) Bradwell v. Illinois was also significant because the Supreme Court eventually started to use the 14th Amendment as a way to overturn state laws that were gender- discriminatory once their view changed on gender equality. This case showed the struggle against women’s rights, but it also demonstrates how things were like before the Supreme Court eventually gave the Amendments more power. 

In the 1876 case United States v. Cruikshank, the Supreme Court took away the power of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. This case sprung from the Colfax Massacre, in which white supremacists massacred about 105 African Americans. The white defendants were charged in court. The Supreme Court decided that the Equal Protection Clause did not apply to this situation since the African Americans were massacred by individuals and not the state. The majority decision reads: "The fourteenth amendment prohibits a State from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; but this adds nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another.” (United States v. Cruikshank et al) Because of this decision, African Americans were subject to the extremely hostile laws that the states had set for them: “The same person may be at the same time a citizen of the United States and a citizen of a State, but his rights of citizenship under one of these governments will be different from those he has under the other.” (United States v. Cruikshank et al) It also allowed organizations like the Ku Klux Klan to rise. United States v. Cruikshank limited the government’s protection over civil rights because the Supreme Court took away the power of the 14th Amendment.  

The Civil Rights Cases were cases that determined the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 gave African Americans equal treatment in public places. It also allowed African Americans to serve on juries. In several cases from lower courts, African Americans sued public places that refused to admit them or excluded them. The Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional.

Their opinion was that the 13th Amendment only protected blacks against involuntary servitude and the 14th Amendment controlled what states did to blacks, however, individuals were causing their suffering. Justice Bradley said: “It is State action of a particular character that is prohibited. Individual invasion of individual rights is not the subject matter of the amendment.” (Civil Rights Cases) The Civil Rights Cases caused Jim Crow laws and restricted the control that the federal government had over equal rights for African Americans. Because the Supreme Court took away the power of the 14th Amendment and declared the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional, conditions became substantially worse for African Americans.

One of the worst decisions the Supreme Court ever made was in the 1896 court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Homer Plessy was a man of mixed race and boarded a “Whites Only” car of a train in Louisiana. By Louisiana law, he had to sit in the section for blacks. He refused and got arrested. When he went to court, he argued that the Louisiana law had denied him his rights given to him by the 13th and 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court decided that the 14th Amendment was not intended to prevent different types of discrimination and that the 13th Amendment was only intended to give blacks the legal rights to protect them against slavery. This decision completely overturned the 14th Amendment and its Equal Protection Clause:  "nor shall any State [...] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." (14th Amendment) This case provided the legal foundation for segregation and took away more power from the 14th Amendment than the Supreme Court intended. 

The Supreme Court cases of the Reconstruction period limited the power that the government had over the United States by weakening the Constitution and restricting the rights that the amendments protected. Their decisions, for a period of time, only created more injustice: decisions allowed white supremacist groups to rise, limited rights for women, and allowed segregation to become legal. Lawrence Goldstone, a constitutional scholar, sums up the effects of the Supreme Court’s decisions best: "All you have to do is look at the rise of Jim Crow and the ability of Southern state governments to segregate, to discriminate, to imprison without trial, to beat to death, to lynch — without anyone ever being brought to justice… it was only possible because the court had very slowly chipped away at [the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the 14th Amendment]." (qtd. in NPR Staff) However, the views of the Supreme Court changed over time. The decisions made in Reconstruction cases were eventually overturned, most notably in the 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in schools unconstitutional. Even though the views of the Supreme Court are different today, the decisions that they made over 150 years ago negatively impacted society and contributed to a dark chapter in U.S. history.



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