Landmark Supreme Court Case: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is the 31st landmark Supreme Court case, the fifth case in the Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality 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
- Science & Technology
- 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.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars. Concerned, a group of prominent black, creole of color, and white creole New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) dedicated to repeal the law or fight its effect persuaded Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race, to participate in an orchestrated test case.
Plessy was born a free man and was a fair-skinned man of color. However, under Louisiana law, he was classified as black, and thus required to sit in the “colored” car.
On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket at the Press Street Depot and boarded a “Whites Only” car of the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana, bound for Covington, Louisiana. The railroad company, which had opposed the law on the grounds that it would require the purchase of more railcars, had been previously informed of Plessy’s racial lineage, and the intent to challenge the law. Additionally, the Comité des Citoyens hired a private detective with arrest powers to detain Plessy, to ensure that he would be charged for violating the Separate Car Act, as opposed to a vagrancy or some other offense.
After Plessy took a seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it, and sit instead in the blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately by the detective. As planned, the train was stopped, and Plessy was taken off the train at Press and Royal streets.
Plessy was remanded for trial in Orleans Parish. At trial, Plessy’s lawyers argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plessy was convicted with the judge finding that Louisiana could enforce this law insofar as it affected railroads within its boundaries.
Q: Does the Separate Car Act violate the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: No. Separate but equal accommodations for whites and blacks imposed by Louisiana do not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
7-1 decision ruling the “separate but equal” provision of private services mandated by state government is constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. Separate treatment did not imply the inferiority of African Americans as the Court noted there was not a meaningful difference in quality between the white and black railway cars. Although the Fourteenth Amendment established the legal equality of white and black Americans, it did not and could not require the elimination of all social or other “distinctions based upon color”.
By ruling segregation did not in itself constitute unlawful discrimination, the Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality – a doctrine that came to be known as “separate but equal”. The decision legitimized the many state laws re-establishing racial segregation that had been passed in the American South after the end of the Reconstruction.
The Court gave great deference to state legislatures’ inherent power to make laws regulating health, safety, and morals—police power—and to determine the reasonableness of the laws they passed. Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenter from the Court’s decision, writing that the U.S. Constitution “is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens”, and so the law’s distinguishing of passengers’ races should have been found unconstitutional.
Plessy, similar to Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history though the decision itself has never been explicitly overruled. Brown v. Board of Education (1954)—which held that the “separate but equal” doctrine is unconstitutional in the context of public schools and educational facilities—along with other subsequent cases severely weakened Plessy to the point that it is considered to have been de facto overruled.
Next Case In Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality: U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)
Previous Case In Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality: Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886)
Next Case: Chicago B&Q Railroad v. Chicago (1897)
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