The Louisiana Separate Car Act: In Accordance with the Constitution
The Louisiana Separate Car Act is a law in the state of Louisiana requiring that railway companies provide “equal, but separate” accommodations for white and colored races. The law dictates that each train must have an equal number of cars or must have partitions in order to divide the races equally, and that passengers may not sit in an area for which they do not belong. An evaluation of the text of the law, the text of the Constitution, and any precedence cases point to the fact that the Louisiana Separate Car Act is not in conflict with the Constitution.
In order to fully understand the case at hand, it would be inappropriate for the court not to at the very least look at the history leading up to the case. Following the Civil War, the Constitution was amended in 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment and then again in 1868 with the adoption of the 14th Amendment. The 13th Amendment calls for the end of slavery in the country with the exception of crime punishment. The relevant section of the 14th Amendment dictates that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Following the adoption of these two amendments, social systems such as Sharecropping, Black Codes, Convict Leasing, were introduced as manifestations of the racism existing in the country. Additionally, racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan grew during and after America’s Reconstruction period. Another prominent social system that has developed since the end of Reconstruction is segregation between the white and colored races. One such segregation law is the Louisiana Separate Car Act, aimed at separating the white and black races on the train cars. In 1891, Homer Plessy, a man who is 7/8 white and 1/8 black, purchased a rail ticket and boarded a Louisiana train. When asked to switch cars, Plessy refused and was arrested under the Louisiana Separate Car Act. Plessy, backed by the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law, sought to challenge the law on the basis of it being in violation of the Constitution. Although it may be necessary for the court to look at the history leading up to such a legislation to understand the case, the context is not what is being ruled upon. The plaintiff’s side may point to the preceding context to determine that the law’s intent is racist, but I find it a legal misstep to judge Constitutionality based on a legislation’s potential intent. Rather the law’s Constitutionality should be judged on its language and application.
In order to ascertain whether the Louisiana Separate Car Act is Constitutional or not, we must first consult the sections of the Constitution for which the plaintiff’s argument has suggested that the act violates. The first amendment that the plaintiff is proposing the act violates is the 13th Amendment. As mentioned previously, the 13th Amendment dictates that slavery shall not exist within the United States. The second amendment that the plaintiff is proposing the act violates is the 14th Amendment. Again, as mentioned previously, the 14th Amendment dictates that the state shall not deprive “life, liberty, or property,” nor deny equal protection of the law to any persons in the United States. The both amendments have language that is a clearly negative statement: “slavery … shall not exist within the United States” (13th Amendment) and “no state shall make or enforce any law … nor shall any state deprive … nor deny to any person …” (14th Amendment). The negative statements indicate that any act or legislation is assumed to be in harmony with the 13th and 14th Amendments until definitively proven that the one of these provisions has been violated. Therefore, we must proceed with the belief that the legislation is Constitutional until shown to be otherwise, meaning that we need only consult what the plaintiff proposes.
Evidently, the first question that should be asked is, does the Louisiana Separate Car Act violate the 13th Amendment as suggested by the plaintiff? In order to answer such a question, we must look at the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. The Civil Rights Cases were a group of five constitutional law cases combined and brought together to the Supreme Court. The background for the case is that Congress passed a law known as The Civil Rights Act of 1875, which dictated that every person has equal access to public accommodations such as transport and theatres regardless of race. In each of the five cases that make up the Civil Rights Cases, a black plaintiff sued a business on the grounds that they were discriminated against because of their race in conflict with the Civil Rights Act of 1875. In court, the business owners fought back, arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was in violation of the Constitution because Congress had no power to regulate the private industries. The Court upheld the opinions of the business owners, concluding that the 13th Amendment only applies to slavery. Not every example of racial prejudice. That Congress has no right to legislate that private industries provide equal accommodations unless the state is involved. It is clear from the ruling in Civil Rights Cases of 1883 that determines that the Louisiana Separate Car Act is not and can not be in violation of the 13th Amendment. The ruling deems that the amendment only extends to slavery, and this legislation has no relation to slavery.
The next question that must be asked is, does the Louisiana Separate Car Act violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution as suggested by the plaintiff? Answering such a question will prove to be much more difficult than that of the 13th Amendment. As mentioned earlier, the text of the 14th Amendment in question is “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Stemming from the language of the amendment, many questions must be asked to determine the act’s accordance with this amendment; Is the Louisiana Separate Car Act in violation of this amendment on its face? Who is an instrument of the State? Does a charter train count as the State? What does equal protection look like? Does application of the law matter?
In order to rule appropriately, the court must consider first whether the text of the law itself is in violation of the 14th Amendment. This must be considered first because if the text of the law is in violation of the Constitution, then it matters not the intention of the law nor the application of the law. The Louisiana Separate Car Act is a legislation coming from the state directly, and is therefore it is not in question whether the law comes from the state. As such, the text of the law must comply with not “denying to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”. The text of the law being that railway companies provide “equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races”, it appears that the text of the law is not in violation of the Constitution given that it requires equal accommodations.
Additionally, the plaintiff may contend that since the “white” and “colored races” are specifically labelled in the legislation, and given the historical context, the law must brand black people as inferior and therefore in violation of the 14th Amendment. However, it appears that this argument would not hold up given that it would be a legal misstep for the court to look at context from outside the case to assign a certain view of black people onto the law. Furthermore, this argument can be quickly refuted by Pace v Alabama (1883). In this case, Tony Pace, a black man, contended that an Alabama statute prohibiting marriage and sexual relations between African Americans and whites, was in violation of the equal protections clause of the 14th Amendment. Pace and Mary Cox, a white woman, were both arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for violation of the statute. The Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of the law, arguing that since the two received the same punishment for the same crime, the law – and application of the law – did not deny equal protection. This affirms that labelling separate races in legislation is not in conflict with the 14th Amendment. Extended to the Plessy case, any violation of the equal protections clause may not rest on the text of the law.
After it has been determined that, at face value, the Louisiana Separate Car Act is compliant with the 14th Amendment, it must be determined whether the practical application of the law remains compliant with the 14th Amendment. The reason for doing so comes from the precedence set by Yick Wo v Hopkins in 1886. The background for this case is that the city of San Francisco made legislation that prohibited its residents from operating a laundry service in a wooden building without permission of the city’s Board of Supervisors. The city then only offered permits to white laundry service owners and not to Chinese laundry service owners. Yick Wo, a Chinese laundry service operator, challenged the legislation in the Supreme Court, with the Court ruling to strike down the law on the basis that its application violates the 14th Amendment because the law was arbitrary to a degree that the city was able to brand the Chinese as inferior by denying them permits to operate wooden laundry services based on race. Due to the precedence from Yick Wo v Hopkins, it is clear that manifestation of the law matters in determining Constitutionality.
In Yick Wo, the state is arbitrarily deciding who gets laundry permits based on race, and stamping Chinese applicants as inferior by introducing a blanket denial of permits for them. It appears as if in the case of the Louisiana Separate Car Act, there is no blanket ban on any race, and as such, no race is being stamped as inferior. Additionally, there does not appear to be any arbitrary element of the law that can be used to brand any race as inferior. Therefore, in order for any manifestation of the act to conflict with providing equal protections, such action must come on the part of the train companies: The train company must not provide an equal number of cars. The train company must not provide equal accommodations. The train company must deny entry to passengers of a certain race in order that the passenger not receive “equal protection”. However, before such an action from the train company can violate the Constitution, it simply violates the Separate Car Act itself. What this means is that Separate Car Act does comply with the Constitution because it requires that the train companies provide equal accommodations for both white and colored races. The word “equal” eradicates any possible arbitrariness that may be used for the law to manifest into complete denial based on race as seen in Yick Wo. It is clear that the state is requiring equal protections under the law given the clear use of the term “equal”.
Since a denial of equal accommodations by the train company would be a violation of the Louisiana Separate Car Act, therefore indicating that the legislation enforces the relevant provisions of the 14th Amendment, it appears that the precedence set in Yick Wo requires that train company be an instrument of the state to the prove the unconstitutionality of the Separate Car Act. In order to understand whether the train charter is an instrument of the state, we must consult Olcott v The Supervisors (1872). The relevant text from the ruling in Olcott is that “although railroads, canals, harbors, and the like are in general operated and controlled by private corporations, they are nevertheless, by reason of the facilities which they afford for trade, commerce, and intercommunication between different and distant portions of the country, indispensable to the public interests and public functions” and are therefore instruments of the state. Extended to the case at hand, since it appears that the train company is an arm of the state due to the Olcott ruling and the nature of it being chartered by the state, it does seem possible for the train company to violate the Constitution.
While this may seem like a victory for the plaintiff’s side, the possibility of the train company to violate the Constitution does not prove that the legislation is in conflict with the Constitution. The first reason that this does not prove any unconstitutionality comes from the Yick Wo case. In the Yick Wo case, the ruling is that the face of the law is Constitutional while the actual manifestation of the law was racist and legally unacceptable. Extrapolated from this is the reverse logic of the ruling: even though the law had room for the city to violate the 14th Amendment, if the city had complied with the equal protections clause, the law may still stand on the books. Thus, demonstrating that the actual manifestation of the law must be in violation of the 14th Amendment for a law which is Constitutional on its face to violate the Constitution. In other words, ruling legislation unconstitutional may not rest solely upon opportunity for the law to manifest in an unconstitutional manner, but only upon the real manifestation.
As such, we must now return to the actual manifestation of the law in question. The facts of the case are that Plessy, a man who is 7/8 white, contends that simply on the basis that white and colored races are separated, the Louisiana Separate Car Act must be in violation of the Constitution. What the plaintiff is not contending is that his rights are being violated because the black car is not being given equal accommodations. One argument that the plaintiff has proposed is that Plessy is not given equal protection because, as a 7/8 white man, he is arbitrarily being assigned to the colored race under the act. However, this logic can quickly be refuted using precedence from the Pace and Olcott cases. In Pace, the Supreme Court posed no issue with the state determining which people are members of the white and colored races. And from Olcott, the railroad company should be treated as an arm of the state, meaning that the power given in Pace to the state in labelling and determining race in legislation is applied to the train company. In addition, any evidence from the plaintiff’s side demonstrating that racism remains apparent since the end of the institution of slavery is meaningless. The court is not ruling on whether racism exists, but rather as common sense legal procedure and the Yick Wo case force the us to do, the court must rule upon whether the manifestation of the Louisiana Separate Car Act, and only this act, is in violation of the 14th Amendment. Therefore, as the plaintiff is not here today on the premise that the law has manifested in black people being stamped as inferiors in receiving worse accommodations than their white counterparts, the court must rule the Louisiana Separate Car Act is in accordance with the Constitution.
The second reason for which the possibility for the train company to violate the 14th Amendment does not indicate that the law is unconstitutional stems from the precedence set in United States v Harris (1883). In this case, four men were beaten and one killed after they were removed from a Tennessee jail by Sherriff R. G. Harris. The Federal Government pressed charges against Sherriff Harris under Section 2 of the Force Act of 1871, which made it illegal to conspire to deprive anyone equal protection of the laws. In the Supreme Court, Section 2 of the Force Act of 1871 was declared unconstitutional on the basis that the Federal Government could only enforce the equal protection clause on state action, but not inaction. Although a case about the Federal Government overstepping its Constitutional bounds, it is very important to note that in US v Harris, the court makes a distinction between state action and inaction. As the Federal Government is unable to police or regulate any state inaction when it comes to the equal protection clause, the Supreme Court is essentially deeming that the state’s inaction towards upholding the equal protection clause is not actually a violation of the equal protection clause. Extended to the Plessy case, if the state were to not enforce their own law mandating that the cars be separate but equal, i.e. state inaction, the state would not be in violation of the equal protections clause. Extended further yet, if the train company does not provide equal accommodations and the state does not prosecute the company, neither the state nor the Separate Car Act is in violation of the 14th Amendment; only the train company is in violation of the Constitution, and it is of no fault of the legislation since the train company is also violating the Separate Car Act.
The simple possibility for the train company to violate the Constitution can not be grounds for the Louisiana Separate Car Act to be unconstitutional because even if the state does not prosecute the train company for not complying with the act, the state has not violated the equal protections clause. Indeed, if the train company is an extension of the state, the train company can violate the Constitution whether or not the separate car legislation is on the books or not. Simply if the train car company were to provide unequal accommodations, the company would be in violation of the 14th Amendment regardless of whether Louisiana Separate Car Act exists, therefore the Separate Car Act can not be at fault for the train car company violating the Constitution. It would be wholly unreasonable and improper legal practice to strike down a law that specifically prohibits violations of the 14th Amendments on the grounds that the law is causing violations of the 14th Amendments that may occur anyways. Ruling in favor of the defendant would be an inappropriate legal practice by the Supreme Court that would undermine common sense and the power of the Constitution. To determine that Plessy’s rights were violated, one must rely on the intent of the amendments and the laws and not the actual wording and one must rely on context from other segregation legislation to argue that separate but equal does not manifest equally. However, as a Justice on the Supreme Court, I am not prepared to disregard the actual text of the law to assign an arbitrary and arguable intention to the laws, as doing so will render the Constitution meaningless as readers can take its text to mean anything that it says. And I am not prepared to look at the context from other manifestations of segregation in the United States to show any violation of the 14th Amendment in this case. If it were brought to the court a case where it is clear that the state has actively violated equal protections clause, I would be prepared to rule as such. Even if segregation is a horrible racism-infused system, ruling in Plessy’s favor would set a dangerous precedence for courts not to rule on the case at hand, but to make rulings based on irrelevant outside information and cases. Since I am unwilling to consider evidence such as photos of unequal separate sinks, suggested by the Plessy side during oral arguments, to prove that the separate trains must be unequal, I must conclude that the Louisiana Separate Car Act is in accordance with the Constitution.