The Slaughterhouse Cases: 136 Years of Unconstitutional Precedent


On this day in 1873, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its disastrous and far-reaching decision in The Slaughterhouse Cases, effectively gutting the 14th Amendment's Privileges or Immunities Clause, which reads: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." The clause's purpose was to protect both natural rights (immunities) and civil rights (privileges) from abusive state governments. Slaughterhouse made a mockery of that.

At issue was a Louisiana law granting a 25-year monopoly to the Crescent City Live-Stock Landing and Slaughter-House Company to build and operate a new central slaughterhouse to "promote the health of the City of New Orleans." Writing for the Court's 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel Miller held that not only was the monopoly constitutional, the Privileges or Immunities Clause actually protected only a modest set of national rights, thus leaving the states free to restrict liberty as they saw fit.

The case remains one of the Court's worst decisions, though recent developments suggest that the Slaughterhouse era may finally come to an end. Most significantly, after last year's District of Columbia v. Heller, which recognized that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms, the Supreme Court will eventually face the question of whether the 2nd Amendment applies against state and local governments as well.

To that end, the Institute for Justice recently filed a friend of the court brief (PDF) in the Chicago gun case, providing detailed historical evidence that the Privileges or Immunities Clause "protects substantive rights from incursion by state and local governments, and [that] the right of citizens to keep and bear arms for self-defense is among the most important of those rights."

When the Supreme Court finally decides the issue of the 2nd Amendment and the states, Slaughterhouse will hopefully receive some long-overdue scrutiny as well.