United States v. Cruikshank
|United States v. Cruikshank|
|Argued March 30 – April 1, 1875
Decided March 27, 1876
|Full case name||United States v. Cruikshank, et al.|
|Citations||92 U.S. 542 (more)
2. Otto 542; 23 L.Ed. 588
|The First Amendment right to assembly was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens and the Second Amendment has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.|
|Majority||Waite, joined by Swayne, Miller, Field, Strong|
|Concur/dissent||Clifford, joined by Davis, Bradley, Hunt|
United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876) was an important United States Supreme Court decision in United States constitutional law, one of the earliest to deal with the application of the Bill of Rights to state governments following the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The case arose during the Reconstruction Era from the 1872 Louisiana gubernatorial election which was hotly disputed, and led to both major political parties certifying their slates of local officers, and the Colfax massacre which followed. Despite a federal judge ruling that the Republican-majority legislature be seated, growing social tensions finally erupted on April 13, 1873, when an armed group of white Democrats attacked African American Republican freedmen, who had gathered at the Grant Parish Courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana, to protect it from the pending Democratic takeover. Over 100 African American freedmen were killed in the massacre, compared to only an estimated three whites.
Federal charges brought against several members of the white mob under the Enforcement Act of 1870, prohibiting two or more people from conspiring to deprive anyone of their constitutional rights, were appealed to the Supreme Court. Among these charges including hindering the freedmen's First Amendment right to freely assemble and their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. In its ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions against the white men, holding that the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment only applies to state action, not individual citizens. The Court also ruled that the First Amendment right to assembly was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens. In addition, the Justices ruled that the Second Amendment only restricts the power of the national government, and that it does not grant private citizens a constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
For the next several decades after the Cruikshank ruling, blacks citizens in the South were left at the mercy of increasingly hostile state governments, which passed laws restricting voting based on race, turned a blind eye on paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Knights of the White Camelia, White League and Red Shirts, and ignored any request to grant blacks the right to keep and bear arms.
On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, an armed white militia attacked African American Republican freedmen, who had gathered at the Colfax, Louisiana, courthouse to protect it from the pending Democratic takeover. Although some of the blacks were armed and initially defended themselves, estimates were that 100-280 were killed, most of them following surrender, and 50 were being held prisoner that night. Three whites were killed. This was in the tense aftermath of months of uncertainty following the disputed gubernatorial election of November 1872, when two parties declared victory at the state and local levels. The election was still unsettled in the spring, and both Republican and Fusionists, who carried Democratic backing, had certified their own slates for the local offices of sheriff (Christopher Columbus Nash) and justice of the peace in Grant Parish, where Colfax is the parish seat. Federal troops reinforced the election of the Republican governor, William Pitt Kellogg.
Some members of the white mob were indicted and charged under the Enforcement Act of 1870. The Act had been designed primarily to allow Federal enforcement and prosecution of actions of the Ku Klux Klan and other secret vigilante groups in preventing blacks from voting and murdering them. Among other provisions, the law made it a felony for two or more people to conspire to deprive anyone of his constitutional rights. The white defendants were charged with sixteen counts, divided into two sets of eight each. Among the charges included violating the African American freemen's rights to lawfully assemble, to vote, and to bear arms.
Opinion of the Court
The Supreme Court ruled on March 27, 1876, on a range of issues and found the indictment faulty. It overturned the convictions of the white defendants in the case. Chief Justice Morrison Waite authored the majority opinion.
In its ruling, the Court did not incorporate the Bill of Rights to the states. The Court opined about the dualistic nature of the U.S. political system:
- We have in our political system a government of the United States and a government of each of the several States. Each one of these governments is distinct from the others, and each has citizens of its own who owe it allegiance, and whose rights, within its jurisdiction, it must protect. The same person may be at the same time a citizen of the United States and a citizen of a State, but his rights of citizenship under one of these governments will be different from those he has under the other.
The ruling also stated that all U.S. citizens are subject to two governments, their state government and the other the national government, and then defined the scope of each:
- The Government of the United States is one of delegated powers alone. Its authority is defined and limited by the Constitution. All powers not granted to it by that instrument are reserved to the States or the people. No rights can be acquired under the Constitution or laws of the United States, except such as the Government of the United States has the authority to grant or secure. All that cannot be so granted or secured are left under the protection of the States.
The Court then found that the First Amendment right to assembly "was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens, but to operate upon the National Government alone," thus "for their protection in its enjoyment ... the people must look to the States. The power for that purpose was originally placed there, and it has never been surrendered to the United States".
In addition. the Justices held that the Second Amendment only restricts the powers of the national government, and that it does not specifically grant private citizens the right to keep and bear arms since the right exists independent of the Constitution.
- This is not a right granted by the Constitution. Neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed, but this, as has been seen, means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress. This is one of the amendments that has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government, leaving the people to look for their protection against any violation by their fellow citizens of the rights it recognizes.
The Court also ruled that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses applied only to state action, and not to actions of individuals: "The fourteenth amendment prohibits a State from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; but this adds nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another."
Justice Clifford also agreed with the other Justices to rescind the indictments but for entirely different reasons: he opined that section five of the 14th Amendment invested the federal government with the power to legislate the actions of individuals who restrict the constitutional rights of others, but he also found that the indictments were worded too vaguely to allow the defendants to prepare an effective defense.
In the short term, blacks in the South were left to the mercy of increasingly hostile state governments that became dominated by white legislatures, who did little to protect them. When Democrats regained power in the late 1870s, they passed legislation making voter registration and elections more complicated, effectively stripping many blacks from voter rolls. From 1890 to 1908, 10 of the 11 former Confederate states passed disfranchising constitutions or amendments, with provisions for poll taxes, residency requirements, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses that effectively disfranchised most black voters and many poor whites. The disfranchisement also meant that in most cases blacks could not serve on juries or hold any political office, which were restricted to voters.
The Cruikshank ruling also allowed groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to flourish and continue to use paramilitary force to suppress black voting. As whites dominated the Southern legislatures, they turned a blind eye on the violence, and denied African Americans any right to bear arms by refusing to pass laws that would have granting them.
As constitutional commentator Leonard Levy later wrote in 1987, "Cruikshank paralyzed the federal government's attempt to protect black citizens by punishing violators of their Civil Rights and, in effect, shaped the Constitution to the advantage of the Ku Klux Klan." Federal civil rights enforcement was blocked by Cruikshank until 1966 (United States v. Price; United States v. Guest) when the Court vitiated Cruikshank.[page needed]
Ironically, and despite that era's Republican commitment to Reconstruction and black civil rights, all five Justices in the majority were appointed by Republicans (three by Lincoln, two by Grant), while the lone Democratic appointee Nathan Clifford dissented.
Although significant portions of Cruikshank have been overturned (either explicitly or by implication) by later decisions, most notably the controversial 5-4 District of Columbia v. Heller ruling in 2008, it is still relied upon with some authority in other portions. Cruikshank and Presser v. Illinois, which reaffirmed it in 1886, are the only significant Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment until the murky United States v. Miller in 1939, but both preceded the court's general acceptance of the incorporation doctrine and have been questioned for that reason.
The majority opinion of the Supreme Court in Heller suggested that Cruikshank and the chain of cases flowing from it would no longer be considered good law as a result of the radically changed view of the Fourteenth Amendment when that issue eventually comes before the courts:
With respect to Cruikshank's continuing validity on incorporation, a question not presented by this case, we note that Cruikshank also said that the First Amendment did not apply against the States and did not engage in the sort of Fourteenth Amendment inquiry required by our later cases. Our later decisions in Presser v. Illinois, 116 U. S. 252, 265 (1886) and Miller v. Texas, 153 U. S. 535, 538 (1894), reaffirmed that the Second Amendment applies only to the Federal Government.
This issue did come before the Supreme Court in McDonald v. Chicago, in which the Supreme Court, "reversed the Seventh Circuit, holding that the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense applicable to the states."
Regarding this assertion in Heller that Cruikshank said the first amendment did not apply against the states, Professor David Rabban wrote Cruikshank "never specified whether the First Amendment contains 'fundamental rights' protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against state action....”
- 92 U.S. 542 (Full text of the decision courtesy of Findlaw.com)
- Ulysses S. Grant, People and Events: "The Colfax Massacre", PBS Website, accessed August 18, 2013.
- Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 at 554
- Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 at 552-553
- Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 at 553
- Finkelman, Paul (2006). Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties.
- Keith, Leanna (2008). The Colfax Massacre.
- Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 at 544-546
- Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 at 549
- Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 at 551
- Finkelman, Paul (2006). Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties.
- Chafetz, Joshua Aaron (2007). Democracy's Privileged Few.
- Klarman, Michael J. (2004). From Jim Crow to Civil Rights.
- Leonard W. Levy, et al., eds., Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, MacMillan/Professional Books, 1987.
- Rabban, David. Free speech in its forgotten years (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.148.
- C. Peter Margrath, Morrison R. Waite, MacMillan, 1963.