The Fourteenth Amendment and the Slaughterhouse CasesHistorical
The U.S. Supreme Court first reviewed the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873).
In a 5-4 decision, the majority adopted a narrow construction of the Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause, which limited its application to the rights of United States citizenship rather than that of the states.
The Facts of the Case
In 1869, the Louisiana state legislature passed “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 Livestock Landing and Slaughter-House Company” in response to health concerns resulting from the waste created by local slaughterhouses. The law authorized the City of New Orleans to charter a corporation with the sole purpose of establishing a centralized slaughterhouse.
The statute granted the corporation the “sole and exclusive privilege of conducting and carrying on the livestock landing and slaughterhouse business within the limits and privilege granted by the act”. It further stated, “All such animals shall be landed at the stock landings and slaughtered at the slaughterhouses of the company, and nowhere else. Penalties are enacted for infractions of this provision, and prices fixed for the maximum charges of the company for each steamboat and for each animal landed.” Once the slaughterhouse was operational, butchers could lease space in the building, but they would be required to close all other slaughterhouses.
The Butchers Benevolent Association challenged the law. As summarized in the Court’s opinion, the plaintiffs argued:
This statute is denounced [by the butchers] not only as creating a monopoly and conferring odious and exclusive privileges upon a small number of persons at the expense of the great body of the community of New Orleans, but it is asserted that it deprives a large and meritorious class of citizens—the whole of the butchers of the city—of the right to exercise their trade, the business to which they have been trained and on which they depend for the support of themselves and their families, and that the unrestricted exercise of the business of butchering is necessary to the daily subsistence of the population of the city.
The Legal Background
The butchers relied, in part, on the Fourteenth Amendment, which was enacted just five years earlier. Pursuant to its Privileges and Immunities Clause:
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 its laws.
The Majority Decision
In an opinion written by Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, the majority ruled that the butchers’ Fourteenth Amendment rights had not been violated. The decision rested on the majority’s holding that the Privileges and Immunities Clause only protected rights guaranteed by United States citizenship (which were limited at the time) and did not include the civil rights protected by individual states.
In reaching this decision, Justice Miller argued that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment was too broad and too radical, arguing that it would transfer the “security and protection” of civil rights from the States to the Federal government. He wrote:
[T]he effect is to fetter and degrade the State governments by subjecting them to the control of Congress in the exercise of powers heretofore universally conceded to them of the most ordinary and fundamental character…We are convinced that no such results were intended by the Congress which proposed these amendments, nor by the legislatures of the States which ratified them.
The majority further rejected the butchers’ equal rights and due process claims. The Court held that the equal rights provisions of the Amendment were only intended to prohibit the states from denying blacks equal rights as a racial group and did not apply universally. In addition, the majority concluded that the butcher’s due process rights were not violated because they could still practice their trade by renting space in the centralized slaughterhouse.
Justice Stephen J. Field authored a dissent, in which three other justices joined. Justice Field argued that the majority’s narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment rendered it largely ineffective, writing:
The amendment does not attempt to confer any new privileges or immunities upon citizens, or to enumerate or define those already existing. It assumes that there are such privileges and immunities which belong of right to citizens as such, and ordains that they shall not be abridged by State legislation. If this inhibition has no reference to privileges and immunities of this character, but only refers, as held by the majority of the court in their opinion, to such privileges and immunities as were before its adoption specially designated in the Constitution or necessarily implied as belonging to citizens of the United States, it was a vain and idle enactment, which accomplished nothing, and most unnecessarily excited Congress and the people on its passage.
In later decisions, the full Court ultimately adopted Justice Field’s interpretation of the protections afforded by the Privileges or Immunities Clause. Conversely, the majority’s decision in the Slaughterhouse cases is widely criticized as one the Court got wrong at first blush.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
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