Slaughter-House Cases

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Slaughter-House Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Slaughter-House cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36, 21 L. Ed. 394 (1873), was the first High Court decision to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been ratified in 1870. In a controversial decision, the Court, on a 5–4 vote, interpreted the privileges and immunities clause of the amendment as protecting only rights of national citizenship from the actions of the state government. This restrictive reading robbed the Privileges and Immunities Clause of any constitutional significance.The case involved three lawsuits filed by Louisiana meat-packing companies, challenging a Louisiana state law that allowed one meat company the exclusive right to slaughter livestock in New Orleans. Other packing companies were required to pay a fee for using the slaughterhouses. The state justified this Monopoly as a way to prevent health risks to people who lived near slaughterhouses, at a time when there was no refrigeration and no way to control insects. The company that was awarded the monopoly and accompanying financial windfall was politically connected to state legislators, inviting charges of corruption.

The three companies filed suit, claiming that the law violated the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. They argued that this clause protected the right to labor freely. The Louisiana law restricted their freedom to butcher meat. Their challenge was unsuccessful in state court, after which they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court affirmed the state court. Justice samuel f. miller, writing for the majority, ruled that the Privileges and Immunities Clause had limited effect because it only reached privileges and immunities guaranteed by U.S. citizenship, not state citizenship. The clause was meant only to prohibit a state from restricting the rights of noncitizens within its borders if it did not similarly limit the rights of its citizens. Miller noted that because the action challenged privileges of state citizenship, the Privileges and Immunities Clause did not apply.

Some of the rights of national citizenship enumerated by Miller included the right to travel from state to state, the right to vote for federal officeholders, the right to petition Congress to redress grievances, and the right to use the writ of Habeas Corpus. Any restriction on these national rights of citizenship by a state would be unconstitutional under the Privileges and Immunities Clause. In the case of the meat packers, however, the Court concluded that no national citizenship right was at stake.

Miller also expressed concern that an expansive reading of the Privileges and Immunities Clause would shift too much power to the federal courts and Congress. In his view the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to grant former slaves legal equality, not to grant expanded rights to the general population. The concept of Federalism, which grants the states a large measure of power and autonomy, played a role in the majority's decision. The Court reasoned that Congress and the states could not have contemplated the expansion of federal power as argued by the meat packers.

The four dissenting justices thought otherwise, believing that the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to do more than just protect the newly freed slaves. Justice stephen j. field, in a dissent joined by the other justices, maintained, "The privileges and immunities designated are those which of right belong to the citizens of all free governments." He saw the clause as a powerful tool to keep state government out of the affairs of business and the economy.

The Privileges and Immunities Clause no longer had any constitutional impact. The Supreme Court came to rely on the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect persons from unconstitutional actions by state government.

Further readings

Scarborough, Jane L. 1998. "What If the Butchers in the Slaughter-House Cases Had Won? An Exercise in 'Counterfactual' Doctrine." Maine Law Review 50 (July).

Wildenthal, Bryan H. 2001. "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slaughter-House Cases: An Essay in Constitutional-Historical Revisionism." Thomas Jefferson Law Review 23 (spring).


Due Process of Law; Equal Protection.