409 U.S. 418 (1973), 71-564, District of Columbia v. Carter

Docket Nº:No. 71-564
Citation:409 U.S. 418, 93 S.Ct. 602, 34 L.Ed.2d 613
Party Name:District of Columbia v. Carter
Case Date:January 10, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 418

409 U.S. 418 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 602, 34 L.Ed.2d 613

District of Columbia



No. 71-564

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 10, 1973

Argued November 6, 1972




The District of Columbia is not a "State or Territory" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the Court of Appeals therefore erred insofar as that court sustained respondent's claims for deprivation of civil rights pursuant to that statute. Pp. 420-433.

144 U.S.App.D.C. 388, 447 F.2d 358, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

On February 12, 1969, respondent filed this civil action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia alleging that, in 1968, Police Officer John R. Carlson of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia arrested him without probable cause and, while he was being held by two other officers, beat him with brass knuckles. The complaint alleged further that Carlson's precinct captain, the chief of police, and the District of Columbia each had negligently failed to train, instruct, supervise, and control Carlson with regard to the circumstances in which an arrest may be made and the extent to which various degrees of force may be used to effect an arrest. Respondent sought damages against each defendant upon several theories, including

Page 419

a common law theory of tort liability and an action for deprivation of civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides:1

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

The District Court dismissed the complaint against all defendants without opinion.2 On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed, holding that the allegations of the complaint were sufficient to state causes of action under both the common law and federal statutory theories of liability. Carter v. Carlson, 144 U.S.App.D.C. 388, 447 F.2d 358 (1971). In sustaining respondent's claims under § 1983, the court held that "[a]cts under color of the law of the District of Columbia are under color of the law of a `State or Territory' for the purpose of § 1983." Id. at 391 n. 3, 447 F.2d at 361 n. 3. We granted certiorari. 404 U.S. 1014. For the reasons stated below, we [93 S.Ct. 604] hold that the District of Columbia is not a "State or Territory" within the meaning of § 1983. We

Page 420

therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals insofar as that judgment sustained respondent's claims under § 1983.3


Whether the District of Columbia constitutes a "State or Territory" within the meaning of any particular statutory or constitutional provision depends upon the character and aim of the specific provision involved.4 Indeed, such

[w]ords generally have different shades of meaning, and are to be construed if reasonably possible to effectuate the intent of the lawmakers; and this meaning in particular instances is to be arrived at not only by a consideration of the words themselves, but by considering, as well, the context, the purposes of the law, and the circumstances under which the words were employed.

Puerto Rico v. The Shell Co. (P. R.), Ltd., 302 U.S. 253, 258 (1937); see Helvering v. Stockholms Enskilda Bank, 293 U.S. 84, 86, 87-88 (1934); Atlantic Cleaners & Dyers v. United States, 286 U.S. 427, 433 (1932).

The Court of Appeals' conclusion that the District of Columbia is a "State or Territory" for the purpose of § 1983 was premised almost exclusively upon this Court's earlier determination that "the District of Columbia is included within the phrase `every State and Territory'" as employed in 42 U.S.C. § 1982. Hurd v. Hodge, 334

Page 421

U.S. 24, 31 (1948).5 At first glance, it might seem logical simply to assume, as did the Court of Appeals, that identical words used in two related statutes were intended to have the same effect. Nevertheless,

[w]here the subject matter to which the words refer is not the same in the several places where they are used, or the conditions are different, or the scope of the legislative power exercised in one case is broader than that exercised in another, the meaning well may vary to meet the purposes of the law. . . .

Atlantic Cleaners & Dyers v. United States, supra, at 433. And the logic underlying the Court of Appeals' assumption breaks down completely where, as here,

there is such variation in the connection in which the words are used as reasonably to warrant the conclusion that they were employed . . . with different intent.


Section 1982, which first entered our jurisprudence as § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Act of Apr. 9, 1866, 14 Stat. 27, provides:

All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.

This provision was enacted as a means to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment's proclamation that "[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude . . . shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." See Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409, 437-438 (1968).

As [93 S.Ct. 605] its text reveals, the Thirteenth

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Amendment "is not a mere prohibition of State laws establishing or upholding slavery, but an absolute declaration that slavery or involuntary servitude shall not exist in any part of the United States."

Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3, 20 (1883); see Griffin v. Breckenridge, 403 U.S. 88, 105 (1971); Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., supra, at 437-440; Clyatt v. United States, 197 U.S. 207, 216, 218 (1905). Thus, it cannot be doubted that the power vested in Congress to enforce this Amendment includes the power to enact laws of nationwide application.

Moreover, like the Amendment upon which it is based, § 1982 is not a "mere prohibition of State laws establishing or upholding" racial discrimination in the sale or rental of property but, rather, an "absolute" bar to all such discrimination, private as well as public, federal as well as state. Cf. Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., supra, at 413, 437. With this in mind, it would be anomalous indeed if Congress chose to carve out the District of Columbia as the sole exception to an act of otherwise universal application. And this is all the more true where, as here, the legislative purposes underlying § 1982 support its applicability in the District. The dangers of private discrimination, for example, that provided a focal point of Congress' concern in enacting the legislation,6 were, and are, as present in the District of Columbia as in the States, and the same considerations that led Congress to extend the prohibitions of § 1982 to the Federal Government apply with equal force to the District, which is a mere instrumentality of that Government. Thus, in the absence of some express indication of legislative intent to the contrary,7 there was

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ample justification for the holding in Hurd that § 1982 was intended to outlaw racial discrimination in the sale or rental of property in the District of Columbia as well as elsewhere in the United States.

The situation is wholly different, however, with respect to § 1983. Unlike § 1982, which derives from the Civil Rights Act of 1866, § 1983 has its roots in § 1 of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, Act of Apr 20, 1871, § 1, 17 Stat. 13. This distinction has great significance, for, unlike the 1866 Act, which was passed as a means to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment, the primary purpose of the 1871 Act was "to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment." 17 Stat. 13; see, e.g., Lynch v. Household Finance Corp., 405 U.S. 538, 545 (1972); Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 171 (1961); see also Cong.Globe, 42 Cong., 1st Sess., App. 68, 80, 83-85. And it has long been recognized that

[d]ifferent problems of statutory meaning are presented by two enactments deriving from different constitutional sources. See the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3. Compare United States v. Williams, [341 U.S. 70], with Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91.

Monroe v. Pape, supra, at 205-206 (opinion of Frankfurter, J.).

In contrast to the reach of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment has only limited applicability; the commands of the Fourteenth [93 S.Ct. 606] Amendment are addressed only to the State or to those acting under color of its authority. See, e.g., Civil Rights Cases, supra; United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629 (1883); United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1876). The Fourteenth Amendment itself "erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful."8

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Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1, 13 (1948); see also United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787 (1966); Evans v. Newton, 382 U.S. 296 (1966); Hodges v. United States, 203 U.S. 1 (1906). Similarly, actions of the Federal Government and its officers are beyond the purview of the Amendment. And since the District of Columbia is not a "State" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, see Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 499 (1954); Shelley v. Kraemer, supra, at 8; Wight v. Davidson, 181 U.S. 371, 384 (1901), neither the District nor its officers are subject to its restrictions.9

Like the Amendment upon which it based, § 1983 is of only limited scope. The statute deals only with those deprivations of rights...

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