The Slaughterhouse Cases (1873)

The Facts

The owners of the Crescent City Livestock Landing and Slaughtering Company bribed the Louisiana Legislature into granting them a monopoly on slaughtering in the New Orleans area. All other butchers had to do their butchering at a slaughterhouse owned by the Crescent City Company and pay a fee. A group of butchers brought suit under the 13th Amendment and the newly minted Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment, arguing that the right to earn a living free of unreasonable, anti-competitive regulations was among the privileges or immunities of national citizenship. The state of Louisiana defended the regulations as reasonable measures taken to protect public health and safety.

The Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law. In interpreting the Privileges or Immunities Clause, the Court ignored history and misquoted constitutional text in order to reach a predetermined result. Unwilling to accept that the 14th Amendment had “radically change(d) the whole theory of the relations of the State and Federal governments to each other and of both these governments to the people,” the Court adopted a narrow reading of “privileges or immunities.” Ignoring the relevant history, which included imposition of the infamous Black Codes by state and local governments, the Court limited privileges or immunities to a handful of idiosyncratic rights of national citizenship, such as access to navigable waterways and the ability to invoke the protection of the federal government when on the high seas.

The Consequences

The clause of the 14th Amendment that most explicitly empowers the federal courts to protect individual rights against state and local governments was effectively deleted from the Constitution. The Court would later turn to the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause to protect individual rights that fall within the category of “privileges or immunities,” but it did so in an inconsistent, ad hoc fashion. The Court’s holding that the 14th Amendment had nothing to say about the widespread, systematic and continued violation of the civil rights of free blacks made the horrors of Jim Crow possible, along with widespread oppression of white Unionists in the South and women and newly arrived immigrants throughout the country.