Supreme Court Cases
Monumental Supreme Court Cases
The first court case under the spotlight is Plessy vs. Ferguson. This segregation case, that discusses racial barriers between blacks and whites, took place in 1896. Chief Justice Melville Fuller presided over the case.
In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed a law, named the Separate Car Act, that required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars. This law not only aggravated many citizens, but many railcar companies because of the extra amount of cars required to accommodate the law. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy purchased a first class ticket for a train heading to Covington, Louisiana from New Orleans. Plessy was born a free man and had the appearance of a white man but was one-eighth black and considered a black man under Louisiana law. Plessy was arrested shortly after sitting down in a vacant seat in the whites-only car.
In his case, Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana, Plessy's lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act, which required East Louisiana Railroad to segregate train cars, had denied him his rights under the Fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution, which provided for equal treatment under the law. However, the judge presiding over the case ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies while they operated within state boundaries. Plessy was convicted and sentenced to pay a $25 fine. Plessy immediately started the appeal process.
During the Supreme Court trial, Plessy's was argued on the basis that segregated facilities violated the Equal Protection Clause within the Fourteenth Amendment. As a naturally born and fully participating citizen, Plessy should not have been denied any rights of citizenship. He should not have been required to give up any public right or privilege. The Separate Car Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore unconstitutional.
The State of Louisiana defended that it is the right of each state to make rules to protect public safety. Segregated facilities reflected the public will in Louisiana. A separate but equal facility provided the protections required by the 14th Amendment and satisfied the demands of white citizens as well.
Justice Henry B. Brown delivered the 7-1 decision of the Court that upheld the Louisiana law requiring segregation. Brown stated that the law did not violate either the 13th or 14th Amendments. He stated that the 13th Amendment applied only to slavery, and the 14th amendment was not intended to give African Americans social equality but only expressed the political and civil equality with white people.
Using a line of reasoning that would stand tall during the next 60 years of political debate and court opinion, Brown wrote that “Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences.” In simple terms, legislation cannot change public attitudes, “and the attempt to do so can only result in the increase of the difficulties of the present situation,” Brown wrote. Reflecting the common opinion of the majority of the country at the time, Brown argued that “If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” The Court stated that segregation was legal and constitutional as long as “facilities were equal.” Thus the “separate but equal doctrine” that would keep America divided along racial lines for the next fifty years came into being.
The dissenting opinion was written solely Justice John Marshall. His dissent was a very powerful opinion that was used later in Brown vs Board of Education to overrule the Plessy vs Ferguson's separate but equal doctrine. John Marshall stated in his dissent, “In the view of the constitution, in the...
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