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An Introduction to Constitutional Law » The Civil Rights Cases

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

Randy E. Barnett & Josh Blackman

Several years after Strauder was decided, federal prosecutors indicted the owners of segregated businesses across the country. Some of the cases involved “denying to persons of color the accommodations and privileges of an inn or hotel.” Contrary to common misconceptions, segregation was not limited to the Southern states. For example, Maguire’s theater in San Francisco “refus[ed] a colored person a seat in the dress circle.” And, the Grand Opera House in New York denied “another person, whose color is not stated, the full enjoyment of the accommodations.”

In each prosecution, the business owner raised the same defense: The indictments were unconstitutional because Congress lacked the power to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Each of these appeals was consolidated in a case known, fittingly, as the Civil Rights Cases. Eight years after it was enacted, eight Justices voted to declare unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenter.

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