The Supreme Court The Supreme Court - Image of hands holding a gavel.
Check local listings
Home Timeline Games Supreme Court History
The First Hundred Years
Landmark Cases
E-Mail this Page Print Format Glossary

A map of the city of Baltimore from the early 19th century.
An 1833 case involving a land dispute in Baltimore led to a holding from the Supreme Court that the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government and not to the states. Above, a map of the city of Baltimore from the early 19th century.

Reproduction courtesy of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
Barron v. Baltimore (1833)

In Barron v. Baltimore (1833), the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution's Bill of Rights restricts only the powers of the federal government and not those of the state governments. The case began with a lawsuit filed by John Barron against the city of Baltimore, claiming that the city had deprived him of his property in violation of the Fifth Amendment, which provides that the government may not take private property without just compensation. He alleged that the city ruined his busy wharf in Baltimore Harbor by depositing around the wharf sand and earth cleared from a road construction project that made the waters around the wharf too shallow to dock most vessels. The state court found that the city had unconstitutionally deprived Barron of private property and awarded him $4,500 in damages, to be paid by the city in compensation. An appellate court then reversed this award. Barron appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1833.

The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that Barron had no claim against the state under the Bill of Rights because the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states. The Court asserted that the Constitution was created "by the people of the United States" to apply only to the government that the Constitution had created -- the federal government -- and "not for the government of the individual states." The separate states had drafted constitutions only to apply to themselves, limiting the actions of only state governments. Thus, "the Fifth Amendment must be understood as restricting the power of the general government, not as applicable to the states." The Court argued that the validity of this conclusion is bolstered by the fact that the Constitution nowhere states that the Bill of Rights also limits the actions of state governments, Thus, the state of Maryland, through the actions of the city of Baltimore, did not infringe on the Constitution. With no federal claim, the Supreme Court thus lacked jurisdiction (or power) to hear Barron's case and dismissed it.

Barron v. Baltimore's simple rule, that the Bill of Rights applies only to the federal government and not to the states, was, in the words of Chief Justice Marshall, "not of much difficulty" -- self-evident from the structure and literal language of the Constitution. However, in spite of the Court's ruling, state courts still interpreted the Bill of Rights as applying to their own governments, viewing them as reflections of the general laws in Anglo-American culture ("the common law"). The Supreme Court's ruling in Barron prevailed in federal courts, however, until passage of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War. Gradually since then, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment, which bans states from depriving citizens of life, liberty, or property without "due process of law," as also incorporating -- or applying -- most of the amendments in the Bill of Rights against the states, including the "takings clause" of the Fifth Amendment. Modern constitutional law prohibits state governments from taking private property without just compensation.

Alex McBride is a third year law student at Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He is articles editor on the TULANE LAW REVIEW and the 2005 recipient of the Ray Forrester Award in Constitutional Law. In 2007, Alex will be clerking with Judge Susan Braden on the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington.

Marbury v. Madison McCulloch v. Maryland Gibbons v. Ogden Barron v. Baltimore view all landmark cases Cherokee Indian cases Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge Slaughterhouse Cases Cooley v. Board of Wardens Dred Scott v. Sandford Ex parte Milligan Plessy v. Ferguson