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Barron v. Baltimore

In Barron v. City of Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 243, 8 L.Ed. 672 (U.S. 1833), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the FIFTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution bound only the federal government and was thus inapplicable to actions taken by state and local governments. In 1868 the states ratified the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT in part to nullify the Supreme Court's holding in Barron v. Baltimore. However, it was not until the twentieth century when the Supreme Court made most of the federal BILL OF RIGHTS applicable to the states.

The case arose when John Barron, owner of the largest and most profitable wharf in the eastern section of Baltimore, Maryland, sued the city for losses his wharf had allegedly suffered as a result of silting. When Barron had originally purchased the wharf, the wharf enjoyed the deepest waters in the area. However, in 1815 Baltimore had undertaken a major plan to renovate and modernize the city by building embankments, grading roads, and paving streets.

To facilitate this plan, the city began diverting water streams from a range of hills around the city into the wharf. In the seven years leading up to Barron's lawsuit, Baltimore experienced a number of violent rainstorms, causing the streams to fill with sand, mud, and earth from the newly graded roads and abutting embankments. The silt eventually poured into Barron's wharf, making the water so shallow that it was no longer accessible by larger ships. By 1822, the year Barron filed suit, the harbor had lost almost its entire value as a commercial wharf.

At trial in the Baltimore County Courthouse, Barron claimed that the city appropriated his private property for a public use without providing him just compensation, as he said was required by the Takings Clause of Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The trial court agreed and awarded Barron $4,500 in damages. The city appealed, and a Maryland appellate court reversed. Barron then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court by writ of error and review was granted. Chief Justice JOHN MARSHALL delivered the Court's unanimous opinion.

The sole issue before the Court was whether the Fifth Amendment to the federal Constitution applied to actions taken by state and local governmental entities. The federal Constitution "was ordained and established by the people of the United States for themselves, for their own government, and not for the government of the individual states," Marshall wrote. When the Founding Fathers made an exception to this rule in particular provisions of the U.S. Constitution, Marshall said, they made clear that those provisions were in fact applicable to the states. For example, Marshall observed that section 10 of Article I provides that "No State shall … pass any Bill of Attainder." Yet none of the first Ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution makes any similar reference to STATE ACTION, Marshall reasoned, evincing the Founding Fathers clear intent to make the Bill of Rights applicable only against the federal government.

"Each state established a constitution for itself, and in that constitution, provided such limitations and restrictions on the powers of its particular government, as its judgment dictated," the chief justice continued. If Barron's property interests were harmed by the city, then he was required to rely on state or local law to vindicate his rights. Neither the Fifth Amendment nor any other provision in the Bill of Rights was applicable to his lawsuit, Marshall concluded, and U.S. Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to take any further action. Accordingly, Marshall dismissed the suit.

Barron v. Baltimore signaled a retreat from Marshall's earlier opinions that had expanded the scope and application of the federal Constitution, a change that reflected the growing STATES' RIGHTS movement over the issue of SLAVERY. Although Barron v. Baltimore was reaffirmed 12 years later in Permoli v. New Orleans, 44 U.S. (3 How.) 589, 11 L.Ed. 739 (1845), the Union's victory in the Civil War marked the beginning of the end for Barron as a valid and binding precedent.

In 1868 the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that no state shall "deprive any person of …DUE PROCESS OF LAW…[or] EQUAL PROTECTION of the laws." During the Congressional debates, JOHN BINGHAM, a Republican representative from Ohio and the primary architect of the Fourteenth Amendment, argued that enacting the Fourteenth Amendment was necessary to nullify the Supreme Court's holding in Barron v. Baltimore.

Despite Bingham's stated intentions, the Bill of Rights was not made applicable to the states through the doctrine of selective incorporation until the twentieth century. Under this doctrine, the Supreme Court has ruled that every protection contained in the Bill of Rights—except for the right to bear arms, the right to an indictment by a GRAND JURY, the right to trial by jury in civil cases, and the right against quartering soldiers—must be protected by state governments under the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court has explained that each of the incorporated rights is "deeply rooted in the nation's history," and is "fundamental" to the concept of "ordered liberty" embodied in the Due Process Clause. Palko v. Connecticut, 302U.S. 319, 58 S. Ct. 149, 82 L.Ed. 288 (1937). Any state that denies one of these rights to its residents violates its duty to provide "equal protection of the laws" guaranteed to the residents of every state. States may provide their residents with more constitutional protection than is afforded by the U.S. Bill of Rights, but the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits any state from providing its residents with less protection.


Amar, Akhil Reed. 1992. "The Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment." Yale Law Journal 101.

Jenkins, Ray. 1987."Amendable Constitution Allows for Corrections of Framer's Errors."Los Angeles Daily Journal (June 4).

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882