U.S. Vs. Harris This Is Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

Tucker, deputy sheriff of said county, from giving and securing to the said Robert R. Smith and others, naming them, the due and equal protection of the laws of said state, in this, to-wit, that at and before the entering into said conspiracy, the said Robert R. Smith and others, naming them, were held in the custody of said deputy sheriff by virtue of certain warrants duly issued against them, to answer certain criminal charges, and it thereby became and was the duty of said deputy sheriff to safely keep in his custody the said Robert R. Smith and others while so under arrest, and then and there give and secure to them the equal protection of the laws of the State of Tennessee, and that the defendants did then and there conspire together for the purpose of preventing and hindering the said deputy sheriff from then and there safely keeping, while under arrest and in his custody, the said Robert R. Smith and others, and giving and securing to them the equal protection of the laws of said state (justia.com).

The third count was identical with the second, except that the conspiracy was charged to have been for the purpose of hindering and preventing said William A. Tucker, deputy sheriff, from giving and securing to Robert R. Smith alone the due and equal protection of the laws of the state (justia.com).

The fourth count charged that the defendants did conspire together for the purpose of depriving said P.M. Wells, who was then and there a citizen of the United States and the State of Tennessee, of the equal protection of the laws, in this, to-wit, said Wells having been charged with an offense against the laws of said state, was duly arrested by said Tucker, deputy sheriff, and so being under arrest was entitled to the due and equal protection of said laws, and to have his person protected from violence while so under arrest, and the said defendants did then and there unlawfully conspire together for the purpose of depriving said Wells of his right to the equal protection of the laws, and of his right to be protected in person from violence while so under arrest, and "did then and there deprive him of such rights and protection, and of the due and equal protection of the laws of the State of Tennessee, by then and there, and while he, the said P.M. Wells, was so then and there under arrest as aforesaid, unlawfully beating, bruising, wounding, and killing him, the said P.M. Wells, contrary to the form of the statute in such case made and provided" (justia.com).

The defendants were also charged with conspiring to prevent or hinder the deputy sheriff from keeping the arrested men safe and from providing them the equal protection of the law (jrank).

The defendants demurred to the indictment, challenging its validity and seeking its dismissal. The defendants questioned the power of Congress to pass the law on which the indictment was based. Specifically, the defendants claimed that only the states, not the federal government, had the power to enact and enforce legislation prohibiting conspiracies to deprive persons of equal protection of the laws when the conspiracies did not involve state action.

The demurrer was heard in the federal circuit court by a panel of two judges. After oral argument, the circuit court was divided in its opinion on the constitutionality of the act's criminal provisions. Consequently, the circuit court certified the question to the U.S. Supreme Court, pursuant to a federal statute authorizing reconciliation of the division of opinion (jrank).

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the provision punishing private conspiracies was unconstitutional. The Court began by stating the rules applicable to its analysis. First, the Court had to presume that Congress had constitutional power to pass the statute unless the lack of constitutional authority was clearly demonstrated. Next, the Court stated, "every valid act of Congress must find in the Constitution some warrant for its passage." To summarize the analytical process, the Court quoted Justice Joseph Story's Commentaries on the Constitution saying, "Whenever, therefore, a question arises concerning the constitutionality of a particular power, the first question is whether the power be expressed in the Constitution. If it be, the question is decided. If it be not expressed, the next inquiry must be whether it is properly an incident to an express power and necessary to its execution. If it be, then it may be exercised by Congress. If not, Congress cannot exercise it" (jrank).

Searching the Constitution, the Court found only four paragraphs that could have any reference to the question at hand. Those paragraphs were Section 2 of Article 4 of the original Constitution and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments. The Court considered each of these constitutional provisions, in turn, to determine if any of them gave Congress the power to enact the Civil Rights Act provisions criminalizing private conspiracies (jrank).

The Court first concluded that the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote, did not give Congress that power. The Civil Rights Act criminalized the conduct of private persons who invaded the equal privileges or immunities of others or deprived others of equal protection of the law. It made no reference to conduct of the state or the United States or to voting rights. According to the Court, such a law could not be founded on the Fifteenth Amendment, the sole object of which was to prevent the United States or the states from denying or abridging voting rights based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude (jrank).

The Court also found no support for the act's criminal provisions in the Fourteenth Amendment, again because the provisions were directed at the actions of private persons, without reference to the laws of the states, or the administration of those laws by state officials. The Fourteenth Amendment, in the Court's opinion, prohibited states, not private persons, from making or enforcing any law abridging the privileges or immunities of U.S. citizens, depriving any person of life, liberty or property without due process, or denying any (justia.com) person equal protection of the laws. The Court concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment, like the Fifteenth,

could not be read to authorize the federal government to regulate private conduct (jrank).

Elaborating on its position, the Supreme Court quoted Justice Bradley in United States v. Cruikshank, stating that the Fourteenth Amendment "is a guaranty against the exertion of arbitrary and tyrannical power on the part of the government and legislature of the state, not a guaranty against the commission of individual offenses; and the power of congress, whether express or implied, to legislate for the enforcement of such a guaranty, does not extend to the passage of laws for the suppression of crime within the states." To emphasize its point, the Court

said, "When the state has been guilty of no violation of [the amendment's] provisions, . . . when, on the contrary, the laws of the state, as enacted by its legislative, and construed by its judicial, and administered by its executive departments, recognize and protect the rights of all persons, (then) the amendment imposes no duty and confers no power upon Congress." The Court held that because the Civil Rights Act applied no matter how well the state may have performed its duty, the act could find no warrant in the Fourteenth Amendment (jrank).

The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude, also did not warrant the enactment of the criminal provisions of the act. Although the amendment gave Congress the power to enact enforcing legislation, the Court determined that the civil rights provisions under review were broader than what the Thirteenth Amendment would justify. According to the Court, the provisions could apply even to a conspiracy between two free white men against another free white man to deprive the latter of a right accorded him by the laws of the state or of the United States. The Court concluded by saying, such a law "clearly cannot be authorized by the amendment which simply prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude."

The final constitutional provision considered by the Court was Article 4, Section 2, declaring that the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens of the several states. The object of this provision is to inhibit a state from passing legislation discriminating against citizens of other states. The Court concluded that the criminal provisions of the Civil Rights Act could not find support in this article, again because the article was directed against state action, rather than the actions of private citizens who invade the rights of fellow citizens (jrank).


The Court's ruling that Congress did not have the power under the Constitution to regulate private conduct came during the aftermath of the Civil War when re-establishing political harmony with Southern states was crucial. The decision reflected the…

Sources Used in Document:


Brittanica. "Force Acts." 2009. Brittanica.com. 23 November 2009 <>.

Cannaday, M. "United States vs. Harris, AKA the Ku Klux Klan Case." 17 March 2008. associatedcontent.com. 23 November 2009 .

jrank. "United States vs. Harris." jrank.org. 22 November 2009 <http://law.jrank.org/pages/13131/United-States-v-Harris.html>.

justia.com. "United States vs. Harris (1883)." justia.com. 23 November 2009 .

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