Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 36 (1873)

2012-09-05 09:19:45

The Crescent City Live-Stock Landing and Slaughter- House Company was created by the Louisiana legislature in 1869 and granted a state-enforced monopoly over the landing and slaughtering of livestock within an 1,100 square mile district surrounding New Orleans. The law, entitled ‘‘An Act to Protect the Health of the City of New Orleans, to Locate the Stocklandings and Slaughterhouses, and to Incorporate the ‘Crescent City Company’’ provided the company with the exclusive privilege of conducting livestock landing and slaughtering and required all other slaughterhouses within the district to close. The Act also obligated the company to permit all butchers to use its facilities at statutorily defined fees.

The enactment was challenged in nearly 300 lawsuits, filed primarily by competing butchers who alleged, among other claims, that the monopoly deprived them of the right to engage in their chosen profession. Appeals from the Louisiana Supreme Court were ultimately resolved against the butchers by the five-to-four Slaughterhouse Cases decision, which provided the U.S. Supreme Court the first opportunity to adjudicate the recently ratified Fourteenth Amendment. The decision remains the most significant authority on the privileges or immunities clause.

Justice Samuel Miller wrote for the majority, announcing that the enactment was within the police powers of the state and did not violate the Thirteenth Amendment, or the due process, or equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Relying on a long history of English and American precedent, the holding of the case was limited to the conclusion that Louisiana was within settled notions of the police power to grant a monopoly in what was deemed a noxious trade.

The bulk of Miller’s analysis turned, however, on the privileges or immunities clause. Although not part of the actual holding of the case, that element of the opinion is the most important because of its subsequent influence. Beginning with a brief discussion of the Civil War, the analysis proceeded from the premise that the Reconstruction Amendments were ratified primarily as a means of establishing and securing the liberty of former slaves. But for the war, the majority posited, none of the amendments would have been suggested and, therefore, the amendments could not reasonably be understood to encompass the wide range of liberties claimed by the butchers on behalf of all citizens. On this foundation, Miller reasoned, only a narrow construction of the Fourteenth Amendment was proper.

The Fourteenth Amendment establishes every person as a citizen of the nation: ‘‘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.’’ Miller found in this sentence a distinction between national and state Citizenship, each consisting of a unique set of individual rights. State Citizenship, held the majority, included virtually all civil rights, whereas federal Citizenship included only those rights that arise as a result of the federal government, its laws, or the national character of federal Citizenship.

The text of the privileges or immunities clause prohibits states from abridging the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, leading the majority to conclude that the clause was intended to protect only those rights incident to federal Citizenship. Were it otherwise, Miller reasoned, the phrase ‘‘citizen of the state’’ would not have been left out of the clause ‘‘when it is so carefully used, and used in contradistinction to ‘citizens of the United States’ in the very sentence which precedes it.’’

The right to travel to the seat of government, to access ports and courthouses, and the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus were among a short list of examples used to illustrate the unique rights of federal Citizenship. The right to engage in a profession of one’s choosing, although acknowledged as a genuine privilege, was deemed to be of state origin and not within the ambit of the Fourteenth Amendment. To hold otherwise, Miller stated, would be to remove the protection of nearly all civil rights from the power of the states and place it in the federal government, which he denied could have been the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment. Rhetorically, the majority asked ‘‘where is it declared that Congress shall have the power to enforce that article, was it intended to bring within the power of Congress the entire domain of civil rights heretofore belonging exclusively to the States?’’

Three separate dissents were filed by Justices Swayne, Bradley, and Field. Justice Field’s dissent answered the majority directly, arguing that the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was broader than securing emancipation for the slaves. The ratification of the Amendment was intended to alter the hierarchy of state and federal Citizenship, placing the vast sweep of civil rights, possessed by all men and not merely former slaves, under the protection of the federal government. Any other interpretation of the privileges or immunities clause, Field insisted, would reduce it to a ‘‘vain and idle enactment.’’

Academic commentary on the Slaughterhouse Cases has been predominantly critical of the majority opinion, more often siding with the dissenters understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment. The consensus view is that Justice Miller’s reading of the privileges or immunities clause accorded it an improperly narrow construction. The judicial consequence of the Slaughterhouse Cases, however, is clear: the Privileges or Immunities clause has been nearly ignored and only recently resuscitated after 125 years by a majority of the Supreme Court in Saenz v. Roe. As a result, the Slaughterhouse Cases foreclosed any significant role for the privileges or immunities clause in the development of civil rights during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


References and Further Reading

  • Aynes, Richard L., Constricting the Law of Freedom: Justice Miller, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Slaughter- House Cases, Chicago-Kent Law Review 80 (1995): 627–688.
  • Curtis, Michael K., Resurrecting the Privileges or Immunities Clause and Revising the Slaughter-House Cases without Exhuming Lochner: Individual Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, Boston College Law Review 38 (1996): 1–106.
  • Labbe, Ronald M., and Jonathan Lurie. The Slaughterhouse Cases: Regulation, Reconstruction, and the Fourteenth Amendment. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Saenz v. Roe, 526 U.S. 489 (1999)

See also Fourteenth Amendment; Police Power of the State; Privileges and Immunities (XIV); Saenz v. Roe, 526 U.S. 489 (1999)