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A scene from the meat-packing industry from the turn of the 20th century.
The Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873 originated with a lawsuit brought by butchers excluded from a state-created monopoly, the Crescent City Livestock Landing & Slaughterhouse Company of New Orleans. Above, a scene from the meat-packing industry from the turn of the 20th century.
Slaughterhouse Cases (1873)

The Slaughterhouse Cases, resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873, ruled that a citizen's "privileges and immunities," as protected by the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment against the states, were limited to those spelled out in the Constitution and did not include many rights given by the individual states. Thus, a state may grant business monopolies to some of its citizens but not to others without running afoul of the Constitution. Slaughterhouse was the Court's first interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, arguably the most important addition to the Constitution after the Bill of Rights.

The case began in 1869, when the Louisiana legislature passed a law creating and granting a monopoly to the Crescent City Livestock Landing & Slaughterhouse Company to slaughter animals in the New Orleans vicinity. In exchange for exclusive operating rights in New Orleans, the Crescent City Company was to comply with various state provisions governing, among other things, quality of facilities and products, output volume, and price of livestock. The company was also required to allow independent butchers to work on its grounds at a set rate. Louisiana claimed the measure promoted health and safety by centralizing and improving slaughterhouse production. Critics speculated the measure was designed to facilitate political patronage. In any case, the law banned all other slaughterhouses from operating in New Orleans.

A group of local butchers sued Louisiana in a state court, arguing that the law violated the "privileges and immunities" clause of the newly enacted Fourteenth Amendment. The butchers claimed that the state unconstitutionally deprived them of the "privilege" of operating slaughterhouse companies and thus prevented them from earning a living. After the state courts ruled that the law was constitutional, the butchers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided the case in 1873.

The Supreme Court's decision, written by Justice Samuel Taylor Miller, ruled that the law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court argued that the "privileges and immunities" clause ("No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States") only forbids the states from withholding the privileges and immunities belonging to American citizenship, not state citizenship.

Furthermore, the privileges and immunities of American citizenship, the Court argued, extended only to those specified in the U.S. Constitution, which bans any state from discriminating against out-of-state citizens residing within its boundaries. The Constitution does not, however, require a state to grant special privileges, like a right to start a slaughterhouse, to every one of its own citizens.

The Court also argued that the Louisiana law did not deprive the butchers of their equal protection and due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. First, the Court maintained that the Thirteenth Amendment (outlawing slavery), Fourteenth Amendment (protecting citizenship rights and liberties), and Fifteenth Amendment (enfranchising ex-slaves) were passed with the narrow intent to grant full equality to "the slave race." Thus, to the Court, the Fourteenth Amendment only banned the states from depriving blacks of equal rights as a racial group; it did not guarantee that all citizens, regardless of their race, should receive equal economic privileges by the state. Second, the Court argued that the butchers bringing suit were not deprived of their property without due process of law because they could still earn a legal living in the area by slaughtering on the Crescent City Company grounds. The Court thus ruled that the Louisiana law was constitutional and allowed the New Orleans butcher plan to go forward.

The Slaughterhouse Cases proved to be more important as a historical snapshot than as a lasting court decision. The strong dissenting opinion by Justice Stephen J. Field, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental rights and liberties of all citizens against state interference, was later adopted by the Supreme Court's majority. Although West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937) ended the reign of Field's influence in this area, the Fourteenth Amendment was interpreted, over the course of the 20th century, to incorporate most of the rights protected in the first eight amendments against deprivation by the states.

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.

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