Plessy v. Ferguson

Plessy v. Ferguson
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued April 13, 1896
Decided May 18, 1896
Full case nameHomer A. Plessy v. John H. Ferguson
Citations163 537 (more)
16 S. Ct. 1138; 41 L. Ed. 256; 1896 U.S. LEXIS 3390
Prior historyEx parte Plessy, 11 So. 948 (La. 1892)
Subsequent historyNone
Holding
The "separate but equal" provision of private services mandated by state government is constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
Stephen J. Field · John M. Harlan
Horace Gray · David J. Brewer
Henry B. Brown · George Shiras Jr.
Edward D. White · Rufus W. Peckham
Case opinions
MajorityBrown, joined by Fuller, Field, Gray, Shiras, White, Peckham
DissentHarlan
Brewer took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; 1890 La. Acts 152
Overruled by
(de facto) Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), and subsequent rulings[1]

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896),[2] was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court issued in 1896. It upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality – a doctrine that came to be known as "separate but equal".[3] This legitimized the many state laws re-establishing racial segregation that had been passed in the American South after the end of the Reconstruction Era (1865–1877). The decision was handed down by a vote of 7 to 1, with the majority opinion written by Justice Henry Billings Brown and the lone dissent written by Justice John Marshall Harlan.

Plessy is widely regarded as one of the worst decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history.[4] Despite its infamy, the decision itself has never been explicitly overruled.[5] However, a series of subsequent decisions—beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which held that Plessy's "separate but equal" doctrine is unconstitutional in the context of schools and educational facilities—have severely weakened it to the point that it is usually considered to have been de facto overruled.[1]

Background

In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars.[6] Concerned, a group of prominent black, creole, and white New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) dedicated to repeal the law or fight its effect.[7] They persuaded Homer Plessy, a man of mixed race, to participate in an orchestrated test case. Plessy was born a free man and was an "octoroon" (of seven-eighths European descent and one-eighth African descent). However, under Louisiana law, he was classified as black, and thus required to sit in the "colored" car.[8]

On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket at the Press Street Depot and boarded a "whites only" car of the East Louisiana Railroad in New Orleans, Louisiana, bound for Covington, Louisiana.[9] The railroad company, which had opposed the law on the grounds that it would require the purchase of more railcars, had been previously informed of Plessy's racial lineage, and the intent to challenge the law.[10] Additionally, the committee hired a private detective with arrest powers to detain Plessy, to ensure that he would be charged for violating the Separate Car Act, as opposed to a vagrancy or some other offense.[10] After Plessy took a seat in the whites-only railway car, he was asked to vacate it, and sit instead in the blacks-only car. Plessy refused and was arrested immediately by the detective.[11] As planned, the train was stopped, and Plessy was taken off the train at Press and Royal streets.[10] Plessy was remanded for trial in Orleans Parish.[12]

Marker placed at Press and Royal Streets in New Orleans on February 12, 2009, commemorating the arrest of Homer Plessy on June 7, 1892, for violating the Louisiana 1890 Separate Car Act

In his case, Homer Adolph Plessy v. The State of Louisiana, Plessy's lawyers argued that the state law which required East Louisiana Railroad to segregate trains had denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution,[13] which provided for equal treatment under the law. However, the judge presiding over his case, John Howard Ferguson, ruled that Louisiana had the right to regulate railroad companies while they operated within state boundaries. Plessy was convicted and sentenced to pay a $25 fine. Plessy immediately sought a writ of prohibition.[2]

The Committee of Citizens took Plessy's appeal to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, where he again found an unreceptive ear, as the state Supreme Court upheld Judge Ferguson's ruling.[10]

In speaking for the court's decision that Ferguson's judgment did not violate the 14th Amendment, Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Charles Fenner cited a number of precedents, including two key cases from Northern states. The Massachusetts Supreme Court had ruled in 1849 — before the 14th amendment — that segregated schools were constitutional. In answering the charge that segregation perpetuated race prejudice, the Massachusetts court famously stated: "This prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law."[14] The law itself was repealed five years later, but the precedent stood.[15]

In a Pennsylvania law mandating separate railcars for different races the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated: "To assert separateness is not to declare inferiority ... It is simply to say that following the order of Divine Providence, human authority ought not to compel these widely separated races to intermix."[16][17]

Undaunted, the Committee appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896.[13] Two legal briefs were submitted on Plessy's behalf. One was signed by Albion W. Tourgée and James C. Walker and the other by Samuel F. Phillips and his legal partner F. D. McKenney. Oral arguments were held before the Supreme Court on April 13, 1896. Tourgée and Phillips appeared in the courtroom to speak on behalf of Plessy.[12] Tourgée built his case upon violation of Plessy's rights under the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees the same rights to all citizens of the United States, and the equal protection of those rights, against the deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Tourgée argued that the reputation of being a black man was "property", which, by the law, implied the inferiority of African Americans as compared to whites.[18]