John Marshall Harlan: Dissent in the Civil Rights Cases

(1883)

John Marshall Harlan served thirty-three years, ten months, and four days on the U.S. Supreme Court, one of the longest tenures of all who have sat on the high bench. During that period, he wrote his share of opinions for the Court majority. Yet he is best remembered for his dissents—for their passion, for their prescience, and for the sheer fact that the most significant among them, those concerning civil rights, were written by a southerner and former slaveholder. Harlan’s passion for the Constitution led him to fight for the Union during the Civil War; it may also have accounted for his expansive reading of the Civil War Amendments, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the Civil Rights Cases decision of 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the powers of Congress with its finding that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not pertain to actions involving private parties. These cases involved African Americans who had been denied access to...

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John Marshall Harlan (Library of Congress)

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