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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
With the Slaughterhouse case of 1873, it became clear that the Supreme Court was back in power as the primary interpreter and maker of constitutional law; that aspect of the antebellum political system had been restored, even as others, such as the centrality of slavery in the constitutional order, had fallen away.
Root traces the battle over judicial restraint to a notorious 1873 Supreme Court decision known as the Slaughterhouse Cases. The decision concerned a group of butchers who challenged a Louisiana law that, ostensibly for health reasons, relocated and consolidated the New Orleans slaughterhouse industry into a state-controlled monopoly.
The missing piece in the puzzle, which I could not discuss in the review, was the incorrect reading that the Supreme Court gave to the 14th Amendment's Privileges or Immunities Clause in the Slaughterhouse cases in 1872.
For the Court to accept Gura's argument, it would have to overturn that longstanding precedent, known as the Slaughterhouse Cases, and implicitly admit that all its incorporation rulings relying on the Due Process Clause had focused on the wrong provision of the 14th Amendment.
In a ruling known as the Slaughterhouse cases, the Court interpreted, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States," to be limited in scope to only such rights or privileges as were bestowed by the Constitution, not those which pre-existed and were merely reiterated in that document.
Many courts and legal scholars have held that state government officials generally have no duty to affirmatively intervene on behalf of an individual to protect his or her well being (see generally The Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), DeShaney v.
What be terms the "populist" efforts were rooted in discontent with a series of federal and state decisions stretching back to the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 where the doctrine of "substantive due process" first made an appearance.
If anything, the Court attempted to circumscribe the effects of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse cases. Moreover, there is no evidence that the dissents by Justices McLean and Curtis in Dred Scott significantly influenced the congressional debates leading to the proposal of the Fourteenth Amendment.
If the emphasis on philosophical rather than historical context in Robinson's essay and his primary focus on constitutional developments since 1970 suggest the boundaries of legal scholarship in this area, the historian Harold Hyman offers a useful corrective in his excellent study of the efforts of Congress and the federal courts in the years between 1865 and 1873 to incorporate the civil rights of both whites and blacks within older, recognized forms of property and to protect them against legislative encroachment, efforts that foundered on the narrow interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse Cases.
The Chicago case could, however, have ramifications beyond the field of firearms rights, since it asks the high court in effect to overrule the 1873 Slaughterhouse cases as subsequently interpreted.
The dissents in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) by Justices Joseph Bradley and Stephen Field were clear and insightful in their defense of individual rights, here economic liberties.
Ross, but he is remembered almost exclusively for one of them: the Court's opinion in the Slaughterhouse Cases. In some ways this fact is fortunate for Ross, for it gives him an organizing center for his biography and allows him to avoid the grave danger faced by all biographers--the illusion that the life-line of their subject supplies them with enough focus that they need not worry about a theme or argument.