United States v. Harris
The ruling invalidated a provision of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, that made it a crime for two or more persons to conspire to deprive another person of the equal protection of the laws or of equal privileges or immunities under the laws. The Supreme Court invalidated the provision because the U.S. Constitution did not authorize Congress to punish private persons for interfering with the exercise of Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Constitution only gave Congress power to regulate state action. The Court's decision gave rise to what is commonly called the "state action" doctrine in civil rights cases.
On 1 January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation of emancipation for African Americans held in slavery in Confederate states. Between 1865 and 1870, the states ratified to the U.S. Constitution the Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment which guaranteed equal protection of the laws, and the Fifteenth Amendment which guaranteed the right to vote. In the late 1860s, a secret white organization called the Ku Klux Klan was founded with the purpose of preventing African Americans from gaining equal access to political power. The Ku Klux Klan beat and murdered African Americans and their white sympathizers to keep them from exercising their rights.
To counter the activities of the organization, the Reconstruction Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. The act extended the protection of federal courts to those who effectively were prevented from exercising their civil rights by the threat of mob violence. The act authorized both criminal and civil actions against those who "conspire or go in disguise upon the highway or on the premises of another for the purpose of depriving" any person of the equal protection of the laws or of equal privileges or immunities under the laws. Although the immediate purpose of the act was to combat animosity against African Americans and their supporters, the language of the act, like that of many Reconstruction statutes, was applicable to incidents beyond the scope of events during the Reconstruction.
In 1876, a grand jury returned an indictment in a federal circuit court in Tennessee charging several persons with criminal violations of the Civil Rights Act following the beating of three African American men and the killing of a fourth, all of whom were, at the time of the incident, under arrest and in the custody of a deputy sheriff. The defendants were charged with conspiring to deprive the victims of the equal protection of the laws and of the right to be protected from violence while under arrest and in custody of the sheriff. 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.
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.
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