An introduction to Constitutional Law 100 Supreme Court cases everyone should know

Randy E. Barnett & Josh Blackman

In 1890, Louisiana required all trains to “provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races, by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train.” Two years later, Homer Plessy intentionally “took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated.” The train conductor ordered Plessy, who was described by the Court as “of mixed descent,” to take a seat in the other coach. Plessy refused and was forcibly ejected by a police officer. After his arrest, Plessy posted a $500 bond and was released. There are strong indications that Plessy wanted to get arrested to set up a test case. His goal was to challenge the validity of Jim Crow laws. Plessy filed suit against John H. Ferguson, the judge of the criminal court who handed down his sentence.

The Court upheld the Louisiana law by an 8-1 vote. As in the Civil Rights Cases, Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenter.

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