Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961)

2012-08-06 15:21:54

Monroe v. Pape is a seminal case concerning the enforcement of constitutional rights. It declared no new rights, but its holding established an effective means for remedying violations of constitutional rights (42 U.S.C. } 1983).

Section 1983 was first passed as Section 1 of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. In relevant part, it then provided: ‘‘Every person who, under color of a statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured.’’ In the ensuing ninety years, Section 1983 fell into desuetude. The belief was that the ‘‘under color of law’’ language required formal legal authorization to commit the constitutional deprivation. But most deprivations did not enjoy the imprimatur of law; they were isolated acts of individual state employees. Such violations were thought to be redressable, if at all, only through ordinary state-law claims (such as tort or contract).

Monroe v. Pape arose from a classic violation of rights. Chicago police suspected James Monroe of murder. Early on October 29, 1958, thirteen police officers, led by Detective Frank Pape, burst through the door of Monroe’s home. Pape was a colorful cop. His adventures had inspired M Squad, a popular detective drama of the 1950s. In his career he killed nine suspects in gun battles and later remarked, ‘‘Everybody I shot and killed deserved it. I slept like a baby after every one.’’

Pape broke into the bedroom where Monroe and his wife were sleeping, pointed his gun, and ordered the Monroes to stand naked in the living room. He and other officers manhandled the Monroes’ children, beat Monroe, and called him racial epithets. The officers ransacked every room. They dragged Monroe off and interrogated him for ten hours. He was denied access to a lawyer and was never brought before a judge. Pape had no search or arrest warrant and never charged Monroe for the murder.

The Monroes brought suit against the officers and the City of Chicago. Alleging violations of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, they used Section 1983 to enforce those rights. The district court dismissed the case, and the court of appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Section 1983 could be used to redress constitutional deprivations that were not sanctioned by state law or custom. Specifically, Justice Douglas’s opinion found that the ‘‘under color of law’’ language encompassed authorized and unauthorized deprivations. The Court observed that Section 1983 was intended to accomplish three aims. First, it overrode state laws that directly infringed on constitutional rights. Second, it provided a remedy when state law contained no adequate remedy. Third, and most controversially, Section 1983 ‘‘provide[d] a federal remedy where the state remedy, though adequate in theory, was not available in practice’’ (365 U.S. at 174). The Court traced the legislative history of the statute, noting Congress’s concern with state officials who were unable or unwilling to enforce state law in the face of the Ku Klux Klan. Therefore, the Court concluded that inadequacy of state-law remedies was a motivating factor behind Section 1983.

The Court then made its critical move: It did not make litigants demonstrate that state-law remedies were actually inadequate before invoking Section 1983. ‘‘It is no answer that the state has a law which if enforced would give relief. The federal remedy is supplementary to the state remedy, and the latter need not be first sought and refused before the federal one is invoked’’ (365 U.S. at 183). The Court’s move required a logical leap, but the decision not to require proof of state-law inadequacy gave Section 1983 its broad scope as a remedial statute: ‘‘Congress, in enacting [Statute 1983], meant to give a remedy to parties deprived of constitutional rights, privileges and immunities by an official’s abuse of his position’’ (365 U.S. at 172).

In a separate holding, Monroe stated that the City of Chicago was not a ‘‘person’’ within the meaning of Section 1983. That holding was overruled in 1978. Today municipalities can be sued under Section 1983 in limited circumstances.

Although they thought the issue ‘‘very close indeed’’ (365 U.S. at 192), Justices Harlan and Stewart concurred in the decision. Justice Frankfurter’s vigorous dissent established the baseline for counterarguments that have influenced the Court in later, narrower interpretations of aspects of Section 1983. Invoking principles of federalism, Justice Frankfurter argued that Section 1983 should not be available to redress constitutional deprivations when state law provided a remedy. He feared that state laws that had traditionally provided redress would be pushed aside, and the power to protect individuals would shift from the state to the federal level. Only when state law failed to provide a remedy – in other words, when the deprivation was authorized ‘‘under color of’’ state law or custom – should Section 1983 apply.

Section 1983 is not the only statute that enforces civil rights. Its scope is limited, most notably in its application only to constitutional violations by state or local (not federal) officials. Nonetheless, it is the most important vehicle for enforcing rights, largely because it authorizes compensation for past constitutional violations. Invoked in about 10 percent of federal cases, it has become the most widely used remedial statute in federal court. The meaning and breadth of Section 1983 have also become the focus of a forty-five-year battle on the Supreme Court. The Court has decided myriad cases further interpreting the statute, and their outcomes wobble between the enforcement impulses of Justice Douglas and the federalist concerns of Justice Frankfurter. A lightning rod of controversy, Section 1983 occupies a central place in continuing arguments over the scope of American constitutional rights and the role of federal courts in controlling the actions of state and local officials.

Monroe v. Pape ushered in this modern era of enforcing constitutional rights. Frank Pape felt the decision’s sting. He paid the Monroes $8,000 for his actions.


References and Further Reading

  • Brief for Petitioners, Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961) (No. 39).
  • Fallon, Richard H., Jr. et al. Hart & Wechsler’s The Federal Courts and the Federal System, 5th ed. 2003, pp. 1067– 1097.
  • ‘‘Frank Pape, Top Chicago Detective, Dies at 91,’’ New York Times, A49 (Mar. 12, 2000).
  • Jeffries, John C., Jr. et al. Civil Rights Actions, 2000, pp. 26–43.