Landmark Supreme Court Case: Marsh v. Alabama (1946)
Marsh v. Alabama (1946) is the 88th landmark Supreme Court case, fourth in the Religion module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Marsh v. Alabama (1946)
The town of Chickasaw, Alabama, was predominantly a company town near Mobile, Alabama, that was owned and operated by the Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation (“Gulf”). The town exhibited the general characteristics of a more traditional settlement. The town’s policeman was a deputy from the Mobile County Sheriff’s Department who was paid by Gulf. The town was surrounded by a number of adjacent neighborhoods which were not located on Gulf property. The Court noted that the residents of these non-Gulf neighborhoods were freely allowed to use the company-owned streets and sidewalks to access the town’s businesses and facilities.
The appellant, Grace Marsh, a Jehovah’s Witness, stood near the post office one day, where she began distributing religious literature. Marsh was warned that she needed a permit to do so, and that none would be issued to her. When she was asked to leave, she refused on the grounds that the company rules against distribution of such materials could not be constitutionally applied to her. The deputy sheriff arrested her and she was charged with the Alabama criminal code’s trespassing equivalent.
During her trial, Marsh contended that the statute could not be constitutionally applied to her, as it would necessarily violate her rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments. This contention was rejected and Marsh was convicted. The Alabama Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, holding that the statute as applied was constitutional because the title to the sidewalk was in the corporation’s name. It held that the public use of the sidewalk had not been such as to give rise to a presumption under Alabama law of its irrevocable dedication to the public. After the Alabama Supreme Court denied certiorari, Marsh appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court.
Q: Did Alabama violate Marsh’s rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments by refusing to allow her to distribute religious material in the privately owned town of Chickasaw?
A: Yes. a company town does not have the same rights as a private homeowner in preventing unwanted religious expression
5-3 holding Constitutional protections of free speech under First and Fourteenth Amendments are still applicable within the confines of a town owned by a private entity. A state trespassing statute could not be used to prevent the distribution of religious materials on a town’s sidewalk, even though the sidewalk was part of a privately owned company town. While the town was owned by a private entity, it was open for use by the public, who are entitled to the freedoms of speech and religion.
The Court employed a balancing test, weighing Chickasaw’s private property rights against Marsh’s right to free speech. The Court stressed that conflicts between property rights and constitutional rights should typically be resolved in favor of the latter.
While the Marsh holding at first appears somewhat narrow and inapplicable to the present day due to the disappearance of company towns from the United States, it was raised in the somewhat high-profile 1996 cyberlaw case, Cyber Promotions v. America Online, 948 F. Supp. 436, 442 (E.D. Pa. 1996). Cyber Promotions wished to send out “mass email advertisements” to AOL customers. AOL installed software to block those emails. Cyber Promotions sued on free speech grounds and cited the Marsh case as authority for the proposition that even though AOL’s servers were private property, AOL had opened them to the public to a degree sufficient that constitutional free speech protections could be applied. The federal district court disagreed, thereby paving the way for spam filters at the Internet service provider level.
In Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner (1972), the Supreme Court distinguished a private shopping mall from the company town in Marsh v. Alabama and held that the mall had not been sufficiently dedicated to public use for First Amendment free speech rights to apply within it. Recently the case has been highlighted as a potential precedent to treat online communication media like Facebook as a public space to prevent it from censoring speech. However, in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck the Supreme Court found that private companies only count as state actors for first amendment purposes if they exercise “powers traditionally exclusive to the state.”
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Previous Religion Case: Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)
Next Case: Colegrove v. Green (1946)
Previous Case: Korematsu v. US (1944)