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United States v. Cruikshank
[92 U.S. 542]
Waite Court,  Decided 9-0,  3/27/1876

In this case, decided during the height of the Reconstruction in the South, the Court opted for a careful reading of the Fourteenth Amendment and refused to expand federal jurisdiction, even though the outcome clearly denied justice.

At issue was a troubling event in which an armed white mob in Colfax, Louisiana attacked and killed over one hundred blacks during a hotly contested gubernatorial election. Three white ringleaders were brought to trial and convicted under the federal Enforcement Act of 1870, which made it a crime to interfere with any citizen's constitutional rights. The defendants then appealed what they felt to be faulty indictments.

The effect of Reconstruction since the close of the Civil War had been to vastly expand federal power, especially in the South. It was no secret that many of the Acts and methods employed to carry out Reconstruction were less than constitutional and would never have withstood Court scrutiny in different times, or in the North. The Court was sensitive to this, and was prepared to resist further attempts at expansion.

In this environment all nine justices agreed that the indictments in Cruikshank were, in fact, faulty. As brought under the Enforcement Act, the indictments failed to allege the denial of specific federal rights:

  • The right of assembly contained in the First Amendment, and the right to bear arms in the Second only protect against congressional intrusion.
  • Viewed constructively -- a perspective unfortunately long since abandoned -- the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment protect citizens only from state action, not from the actions of other citizens.
  • Because the indictments did not allege that the defendant's actions were based upon race, interference with the victims' right to vote was also not federally actionable.

Ultimately the Court placed the responsibility for trying and punishing the offenders in the Colfax Massacre back on the state of Louisiana -- where such punishment was unlikely. The outcome of Cruikshank certainly did nothing to stem the racial violence of the Reconstruction period.

Although the Court has since properly incorporated the First Amendment into the Fourteenth to make it applicable to the states (it has yet to do so with the Second), barring that the Cruikshank Court's strict reading of federal jurisdiction under the Constitution was not incorrect.

In cases like this one where a proper reading of the Constitution seems to produce an egregiously unjust outcome, it's easy to question the validity of the former. But with good leadership, just outcomes can be produced without twisting the legal foundation of the world's most successful nation.

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Other decisions pertaining to Voting Rights:

Baker v. Carr    [369 U.S. 186 (1962)]  Warren Court
Gray v. Sanders    [372 U.S. 368 (1963)]  Warren Court
Grovey v. Townsend    [295 U.S. 45 (1935)]  Hughes Court
Minor v. Happersett    [88 U.S. 162 (1875)]  Waite Court
Reynolds v. Sims    [377 U.S. 533 (1964)]  Warren Court
Smith v. Allwright    [321 U.S. 649 (1944)]  Stone Court
South Carolina v. Katzenbach    [383 U.S. 301 (1966)]  Warren Court

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