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The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution were approved by Congress and ratified by the states after the U.S. Civil War. Known collectively as the Civil War Amendments, they were designed to protect individual rights. The Thirteenth Amendment forbids Involuntary Servitude or Slavery, except where the condition is imposed on an individual as punishment for a crime.
For many decades, however, the goals of the Civil War Amendments were frustrated. Due perhaps to the waning public support for postwar Reconstruction and the nation's lack of sensitivity to individual rights, the U.S. Supreme Court severely curtailed the application of the amendments. The Supreme Court thwarted the amendments in two ways: by restrictively interpreting the substantive provisions of the amendments and by rigidly confining Congress's enforcement power.
Congress enacted a number of statutes to enforce the provisions of the Civil War Amendments, but by the end of the nineteenth century, most of those statutes had been overturned by the courts, repealed, or nullified by subsequent legislation. For example, Congress enacted the civil rights act of 1875 (18 Stat. 336), which provided that all persons should have full and equal enjoyment of public inns, parks, theaters, and other places of amusement, regardless of race or color. Although some federal courts upheld the constitutionality of the act, many courts struck it down. These decisions were then appealed together to the U.S. Supreme Court and became known as the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3, 3 S. Ct. 18, 27 L. Ed. 835 (1883). The cases involved theaters in New York and California that would not seat African Americans, a hotel in Missouri and a restaurant in Kansas that would not serve African Americans, and a train in Tennessee that would not allow an African American woman in the "ladies" car.
The Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by an 8–1 vote, holding that Congress had exceeded its authority to enforce the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court held that private discrimination against African Americans did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment's ban on slavery. Following this decision, several northern and western states began enacting their own bans on discrimination in public places. But many other states did the opposite: they began codifying racial Segregation and discrimination in laws that became known as the Jim Crow Laws.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, in which it upheld segregation on railroad cars. Desegregationists had hoped that the Supreme Court would acknowledge that the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce allowed it to ban segregation on public transportation. But the Court avoided this issue, holding that this particular railway was a purely local line. In addition, the Court found that the segregation rules did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment because they did not establish a state of involuntary servitude, although they did distinguish between races. In a lone dissent, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that the "arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the constitution."
During the next six decades, the U.S. Supreme Court continued to uphold segregation of the races in schools, public accommodations, public transportation, and various other aspects of public life, so long as the treatment of the races was equal. The Court refused to hear cases arguing that the Thirteenth Amendment was violated by private covenants between whites who agreed not to sell or lease their homes to African Americans. Thus, the covenants were allowed to stand. Gradually, though, the Supreme Court's narrow view of the Civil War Amendments expanded, resulting in significant changes in civil and Criminal Law. This expansion began in 1954, when the Court overturned its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson and outlawed the separate-but-equal doctrine (brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 ).
Although the Supreme Court had declared invalid the Civil Rights Act of 1875, it had not invalidated an earlier act, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1982). The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was specifically enacted to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment's ban on slavery. By 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court was relying on the act to prohibit individuals from discriminating against racial minorities in the sale or lease of housing (Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409, 88 S. Ct. 2186, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1189 ). The Jones decision was issued just weeks after Congress enacted the first federal fair housing laws.
In reaching their decision the Supreme Court first had to decide whether Congress had the power to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Justice Potter Stewart, writing for the majority, turned to the Thirteenth Amendment and observed that it was adopted to remove the "badges of slavery" and that it gave Congress power to effect that removal. Stewart wrote:
Congress has the power under the Thirteenth Amendment rationally to determine what are the badges and the incidents of slavery, and the authority to translate that determination into effective legislation…. [W]hen racial discrimination herds men into ghettos and makes their ability to buy property turn on the color of their skin, then it too is a relic of slavery.
The Supreme Court continues to address issues that arise under the Thirteenth Amendment. In the 1988 case of United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931, 108 S. Ct. 2751, 100 L. Ed. 2d 788, the Court explored the meaning of the term involuntary servitude. This case addressed the Thirteenth Amendment as well as a federal criminal statute (18 U.S.C.A. § 1584) that forbids involuntary servitude. At issue in the case were two mentally challenged men in poor health who had been kept laboring on a farm. The men worked seven days a week, 17 hours a day, initially for $15 per week and then for no pay at all. Their employers used various forms of physical and psychological threats and force to keep the men on the farm. The Court held that "involuntary servitude" requires more than mere psychological coercion; it also requires physical or legal coercion. But, the Court noted, the Thirteenth Amendment was designed not only to abolish slavery of African Americans, but also to prevent other forms of compulsory labor akin to that slavery.
Observing that the definition of slavery has shifted since the Civil War, courts have held that involuntary servitude does not necessarily require a black slave and a white master (Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District, 789 F. Supp. 1337 [E.D. Pa. 1992]). The courts have found that religious sects may be guilty of subjecting an individual to involuntary servitude if the sect knowingly and willfully holds an individual against her will (United States v. Lewis, 644 F. Supp. 1391 [W.D. Mich.], aff'd, 840 F.2d 1276 (6th Cir. 1986). In addition, forcing a mental patient to perform nontherapeutic labor may be a form of involuntary servitude (Weidenfeller v. Kidulis, 380 F. Supp. 445 [E.D. Wis. 1974]).
The Thirteenth Amendment does not prohibit the government from compelling citizens to perform certain civic duties, such as serving on a jury (Hurtado v. United States, 410 U.S. 578, 93 S. Ct. 1157, 35 L. Ed. 2d 508 ) or participating in the military draft (Selective Draft Law cases, 245 U.S. 366, 38 S. Ct. 159, 62 L. Ed. 349 ).
A related statute is the Anti-Peonage Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 1994). Peonage is defined as compulsory service based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The courts have held that neither the Thirteenth Amendment nor the Anti-Peonage Act prevents a convicted person from being required to work on public streets as part of his sentence (Loeb v. Jennings, 67 S.E. 101 (Ga. 1910), aff'd, 219 U.S. 582, 31 S. Ct. 469, 55 L. Ed. 345 ). In addition, neither of these laws prevents the government from garnishing wages or using the court's Contempt power to collect overdue taxes or Child Support (Beltran v. Cohen, 303 F. Supp. 889 [N.D. Cal. 1969]; Knight v. Knight, 996 F.2d 1225 [9th Cir. 1993]).
The courts have also held that state workfare programs that require or encourage citizens to obtain gainful employment in order to participate in the state's public assistance programs do not constitute involuntary servitude or peonage (Brogan v. San Mateo County, 901 F.2d 762 [9th Cir. 1990]). In another interesting application of these laws, a federal court held that a high school program that required all students to complete 60 hours of community service in order to graduate did not constitute involuntary servitude or peonage (Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District, 789 F. Supp. 1337 [E.D. Pa. 1992]).
Azmy, Baher. 2002. "Unshackling the Thirteenth Amendment: Modern Slavery and a Reconstructed Civil Rights Agenda." Fordham Law Review 71 (December).
Glasser, Ira. 1991. Visions of Liberty. New York: Arcade.
Schleichert, Elizabeth. 1998. The Thirteenth Amendment: Ending Slavery. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow.
Smolla, Rodney A. 1997. Federal Civil Rights Acts. 3d ed. Vol. 1. New York: Clark Boardman Callaghan.
Vorenberg, Michael. 2001. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Witt, Elder, ed. 1979. The Supreme Court and Individual Rights. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.
Wolff, Tobias Barrington. 2002. "The Thirteenth Amendment and Slavery in the Global Economy." Columbia Law Review 102 (May).