Saturday, March 5, 2016

Defending the Slaughter House Decision

Many scholars and pundits alike, especially liberals and libertarians, feel the Supreme Court Slaughter House decision of 1873 was wrong and even grossly negligent. The Slaughter house case was important because it was the first case ruling about the newly passed fourteenth amendment. It was an unusual 5-4 split decision ruling against the butchers during the New Orleans post-Civil War reconstruction era. The Louisiana state legislature passed a law that monopolized butchers under one company and moved their operating location outside of the New Orleans city limits for health reasons. The butchers claimed this violated the “privileges and immunities” clause of the fourteenth amendment. In other words, they no longer had the privilege to practice their trade and make a living. By ruling against the butchers, many argued the Supreme Court all but eliminated the scope of the “privileges and immunities” clause. Others claim the Slaughter House ruling played an important role in allowing the passage of the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century. Here are some reasons the Slaughter House decision was a sound one:

All butchers were offered jobs to work with the monopoly butcher company. So no butcher was put out of work and denied the ability to practice their trade. In the past, New Orleans butchers already practiced their trade like a monopoly. They conspired to drive up prices and to push “blacks” out of the profession. Also, localized monopolies are much different than national monopolies. Localized monopolies are very common in the US and hardly violate any commerce regulations. For instance, there may only be one shoe store in 1870s New Orleans, but that does not mean it is a monopoly.

By siding with the local and state legislatures, the Supreme Court was siding with the post-Civil War Reconstruction effort. Much of the Louisiana reconstruction era state legislation was made up of African-Americans (about 1/3). John Campbell, the attorney for the butchers, was a former Supreme Court justice who resigned at the outbreak of the Civil War to work for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Campbell was one of 7 justices who ruled against Dred Scott in 1857. Campbell was bitter and had an axe to grind. He wanted to create an irony by using the newly passed thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments against the North’s reconstruction effort. Campbell solely wanted to stunt the reconstruction effort led by black politicians and northern businessmen (carpetbaggers).

Due to the butcher’s negligence of discarding animal entrails, feces, and urine into the Mississippi river (near pipes that pump in the city’s drinking water no less), New Orleans was a health hazard. Every year thousands of people were dying from cholera outbreaks. It is also important to note, other major cities such as New York and Boston created laws to prevent butchers from contaminating the water supply. This was hardly a unique situation. Actually, by ruling against the butchers, the justices were ruling in favor of the civil rights of the citizens of New Orleans and protecting them from the negligence of the butchers.

The Slaughter House decision was bipartisan. Four of 7 Republicans ruled with the majority decision and 2 Democrats were split. This type of bipartisanship is hardly seen in Supreme Court split decisions were both parties are on opposing sides of the decisions. In other words, this was not a political decision.

Samuel Miller, who wrote the majority opinion, claimed that the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments were drafted with one primary reason in mind – to protect African American slaves. These laws were not drafted to primarily protect butchers or whites for that matter. And who are we to argue with Miller? After all, he was alive and working in government when these amendments were drafted. Hence, he had a better understanding of the intent of amendments then present day pundits. And Miller’s defense of African Americans civil rights during his opinion should have been enough for the Court to properly rule on the 1875 Civil Rights Act (1877) and on Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Unfortunately, the court ruled the fourteenth amendments “equal protection clause” prevents State’s laws from discrimination, but it does not prevent individuals and corporations from discriminating against blacks. These decisions led to the Jim Crow laws, not the Slaughter House decision.

The Fourteenth amendment has been used to rule on many of the top landmark cases in US history – contraception, abortion, gay marriage, and other social justice cases. My point is that the fourteenth amendment hardly seems weakened by the Miller decision. Are there really any major injustices in US history that were blocked by Miller narrowing the scope of the “privileges and immunities” clause? For instance, removing the privilege of marriage for all did not stop the court from ruling in favor of gay marriage. Politics and broad interpretation of the Constitution has not stopped liberals from getting their way. It has not stopped the Court from making social justice decisions in which they have no jurisdiction. I do not see any limitations in Court’s ability to protect the civil rights of Americans by the Slaughter House ruling.

The butcher’s may have been slightly inconvenienced, but that may be the consequence of war, public health, and modernization. A ruling in favor of the butchers would have been a blow to reconstruction, public health, and black governance. This would have set a very bad precedent for the fourteenth amendment.

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