Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Cases

Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Cases

Case:  Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

The case Plessy v. Ferguson is civil where Plessy petitions district court on a ruling favoring Ferguson who claimed that the petitioner infringed his rights as an African American. The law involved in the case is the one that allows legal distinction between the white and the blacks.


The petitioner in the case had paid for a first class seat on East Louisiana Railway to travel from New Orleans to Covington (Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896). Plessy got in the train and sat in the unallocated seat where there were white people. The railway company was bided by the Louisiana law, which did not distinguish between white and black. However, the conductor instructed the petitioner to shift to the allocated seat although the black accommodated the area (Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896). The penalty of ejection and imprisonment was guiding the conductor to issue instructions to the petitioner. The petitioner refused to vacate the seat where a police officer took him out and imprisoned him in the parish jail.

The petitioner was later taken to a parish of Orleans criminal district court where he argued that the claims were null and void because the act by the conductor was against the US constitution which secured immunity to the citizens (Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896). The court charged Plessy for refusing to sit on the coach assigned and to which his race belonged and insisting on seating on a coach of a different race. The Supreme Court upheld the decision by the parish of Orleans criminal district court.

According to the Supreme Court judge, the constitutional act, which gave the petitioner immunity against people of black race, conflicted with the thirteenth amendment, made to abolish slavery. The judge argued that displacing a black person and claiming protection against such acts was slavery, which implied servitude  (Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896).   The judge also argued that the constitutional act, which the petitioner based his argument on, conflicted with the fourteenth amendment. According to the bill, all people born in the state or naturalized and are subjected to the jurisdiction are US citizens and of states of residents and that the state cannot make any law which shall deprive privileges or expose immunity of its citizens. Through the argument, the supreme court judge held that no passenger is allowed to sit in a coach assigned to a person of different race and therefore, the petition was dropped  (Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896).

How the bill of rights address the facts

One of the rights, which emerge from the case, is the right to protection from slavery. The fact of the matter is that the petitioner occupied a seat belonging to a black American and refused to move when asked by the conductor. The judge interpreted the act as slavery, which the fourteenth amendment of the US constitution prohibits (Lash, 2019). Another right applied in the case was the right to protection from discrimination by race and the right to own property. The fact about the matter was that the petitioner was refusing to move from the seat because the person who was to occupy it was an African America (Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896). According to the judge, that was discrimination because every person had the right to property regardless of the race.

Another fact on the case was that the person who was supposed to occupy the coach occupied by the petitioner was a US citizen. The state of Louisiana was made up of missed races, which the petitioner did not recognize as citizens. The fact that the person grew in the US allowed him to become a US citizen according to the constitution and had the right to be protected against all sorts of harmful acts against him.

The outcome of the case and opinion on the interpretation of the bills of rights

The court ruled in favor of the train conductor as well as the African America who was assigned the seat occupied by the petitioner. It found that the petitioner was using one constitution clause to defend his actions, which was violating other several rights (Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896). First, the petitioner was taking advantage of the constitutional right of immunity as a US citizen to propagate slavery, which the fourteenth amendment in the same constitution prohibited (Lash, 2019). Also, the petitioner was assuming that the African Americans were not US citizens just because of color not putting in to consideration of other factors which made any person a US citizen such as naturalization or birth(Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896). The petitioner was wrongly using the clause of immunity to infringe the right to property of the respondent.

The court interpretation of the bill of rights was correct in the ruling. First, every US citizen who is born or naturalized in the US has the right to citizenship (Lash, 2019). The Supreme Court interpreted the bill of right to mean that the respondent was also immune as a US citizen and was protected by the law (Case 163 U.S. 537, 1896). The interpretation is justifiable, as the law does not discriminate on the mode through which a person became a US citizen. The Supreme Court judge also interpreted the right to property ownership correctly that the respondent had the right to seat on the coach allocated. Being a US citizen, he could own anything as a shareholder of the country as long as the state allocates it to him or her, which the train attendant represented.



Case 163 U.S. 537 (United States Supreme Court, 1896)

Lash, K. T. (2019). Federalism and the Original Fourteenth Amendment. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 42(1), 69–79.

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