United States v. Stanley (aka The Civil Rights Cases)
109 U.S. 3 (1883)

  • Stanley, and a number of other African-Americans sued in a number of different cases, claiming racial discrimination in private businesses.
    • They sued theaters, hotels, and transit companies that had refused them admittance or excluded them from “whites only” facilities.
    • Stanley et. al. claimed that the discrimination was unconstitutional based on the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and the Equal Protection Clause.
      • “…all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.”
  • The US Supreme Court consolidated all the cases (into what is now known as The Civil Rights Cases), and held the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to be unconstitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the 14th Amendment did not give Congress the power to regulate private acts by private citizens or businesses. Based on the wording of the 14th Amendment, it is only applicable to actions taken by governmental agencies.
      • The Court did note that the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against slavery did prohibit private citizens from owning slaves, but they felt that it was unreasonable to force private citizens and businesses to stop discriminating against people they didn’t like.
  • The concept that the Constitution only applies to the government is known as the State Action Doctrine.
    • There are generally two exceptions to the State Action Doctrine:
      • The Public Functions Exception, which says that a private entity must comply with the Constitution if it is performing a task that has been traditionally, exclusively, done by the government.
        • See Marsh v. Alabama (326 U.S. 501 (1946)).
      • The Entanglement Exception, which says that private conduct must comply with the Constitution if the government has authorized, encouraged, or facilitated the unconstitutional conduct.
  • Much later, the Court also found that the Federal government could regulate the behavior or private citizens and businesses, if they do it under the Interstate Commerce Clause. (Civil Rights Act of 1964).
    • See Heart of Atlanta Motel Inc. v. United States (379 U.S. 241 (1964)).
    • The basic difference is that the 14th Amendment is only applicable to the government, not to private persons. The Interstate Commerce Clause is applicable to the actions of private persons.
      • So, the take home message is that the same basic law can be constitutional or not, depending on which part of the Constitution is used as a basis for the law’s authority.