The Slaughterhouse Cases: Getting the 14th Amendment Wrong for 137 Years


The Supreme Court's notorious decision in The Slaughterhouse Cases turns 137 today, which is about 138 years too old. As we've documented here at Reason, Slaughterhouse ranks among the Supreme Court's worst decisions. It made a mockery of the 14th Amendment, effectively gutting the amendment's Privileges or Immunities Clause, which commands, "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 secure civil rights (privileges) and natural rights (immunities) against the depredations of state and local governments.

At issue in the case was a Louisiana law granting a 25-year slaughterhouse monopoly to a group of politically-connected insiders. Writing for the Court's 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel Miller held that not only was the monopoly perfectly constitutional, but the Privileges or Immunities Clause actually protected only a narrow set of national rights, thus leaving the states free to restrict liberty as they saw fit.

But the Court still has a chance to make things right. Sometime before the end of June the justices will issue their hotly-anticipated decision in McDonald v. Chicago, which will decide whether the Second Amendment applies against the states via the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause or its Privileges or Immunities Clause (or not at all). The text, history, and original meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause all point in the same direction: It was designed to apply fundamental individual rights—including the right of armed self-defense—against abusive state and local governments. Unfortunately, the Court's conservatives, particularly Justice Antonin Scalia, seemed unwilling to follow the text of the Constitution and overturn Slaughterhouse. Time will tell.