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
"...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
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
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
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
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)).
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
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