Mary Butts v. Merchants Miners Transportation Company

Decision Date16 June 1913
Docket NumberNo. 131,131
Citation57 L.Ed. 1422,33 S.Ct. 964,230 U.S. 126
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Albin L. Richards for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 127-129 intentionally omitted] Mr. A. Nathan Williams for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice Van Devanter delivered the opinion of the court:

This is an action to recover twelve penalties of $500 each under §§ 1 and 2 of the act of March 1, 1875 (18 Stat. at L. 335, chap. 114, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 1260), known as the civil rights act. According to the declaration the facts are these: The plaintiff is a colored woman and a citizen of the United States, and the defendant is a maryland corporation engaged in the transportation of passengers and freight by vessels plying between Boston, Massachusetts, and Norfolk, Virginia. Upon tickets purchased for the purpose, and entitling her to the accommodations and privileges of a first-class passenger, the plaintiff was carried by the defendant on one of its steamships from Boston to Norfolk, and on another back to Boston. Both vessels were engaged in the coastwise trade as public conveyances, and were duly enrolled under the laws of the United States. During both voyages the plaintiff was denied, because of her color, the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations and privileges of a first-class passenger, the denials consisting in requiring her to take her meals at a second table, instead of at the first, with the white passengers having tickets like her own, and in giving her a stateroom on the lower deck, instead of on the upper one, where the white passengers possessing like tickets were given rooms. The acts of discrimination were twelve in number. Eleven were charged as occurring upon the high seas, more than a marine league from any land, and the other as occurring merely upon the high seas. There was no attempt to set up a common-law right of recovery, the sole reliance being upon §§ 1 and 2 of the act of 1875, supra. The defendant demurred, claiming that those sections are unconstitutional and void, and the demurrer was sustained, judgment being given for the defendant. The plaintiff then sued out this direct writ of error.

The preamble of the act and the sections under which the penalties are claimed are as follows:

'Whereas, it is essential to just government we recognize the equality of all men before the law, and hold that it is the duty of government in its dealings with the people to mete out equal and exact justice to all, of whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion, religious or political; and it being the appropriate object of legislation to enact great fundamental principles into law: Therefore,

'Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement; subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law, and applicable alike to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude.

'Sec.2. That any person who shall violate the foregoing section by denying to any citizen, except for reasons by law applicable to citizens of every race and color, and regardless of any previous condition of servitude, the full enjoyment of any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, or privileges in said section enumerated, or by aiding or inciting such denial, shall, for every such offense, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars to the person aggrieved thereby, to be recovered in an action of debt, with full costs; and shall also, for every such offense, be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not less than five hundred nor more than one thousand dollars, or shall be imprisoned not less than thirty days nor more than one year: Provided, That all persons may elect to sue for the penalty aforesaid, or to proceed under their rights at common law and by state statutes; and having so elected to proceed in the one mode or the other, their right to proceed in the other jurisdiction shall be barred. But this proviso shall not apply to criminal proceedings, either under this act or the criminal law of any state: And provided further, That a judgment for the penalty in favor of the party aggrieved, or a judgment upon an indictment, shall be a bar to either prosecution respectively.'

The question of the constitutional validity of those sections came before this court in Civil Rights Cases, 109 U. S. 3, 27 L. ed. 836, 3 Sup. Ct. Rep. 18, and upon full consideraton it was held (a) that they receive no support from the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce because, as is shown by the preamble and by their terms, they were not enacted in the exertion of that power, and (b) that, as applied to the states, they are unconstitutional and void because in excess of the power conferred upon Congress, and an encroachment upon the powers reserved to the states respectively. That decision has stood unchallenged for almost thirty years, and counsel for the plaintiff does not question it now. But he does contend that, although unconstitutional and void in their application to the states, the sections are valid and effective in all other places within the jurisdiction of the United States, such as upon an American vessel upon the high seas, more than a marine league from land, and in the District of Columbia and the territories. And in this connection our attention is directed to that part of the opinion in Civil Rights Cases which says (p. 19):

'We have also discussed the validity of the law in reference to cases arising in the states only; and not in reference to cases arising in the territories or the District of Columbia, which are subject to the plenary legislation of Congress in every branch of municipal regulation. Whether the law would be a valid one as applied to the Territories and the District is not a question for consider- ation in the cases before us; they all being cases arising within the limits of states.'

The real question is whether the sections in question, being in part—by far the greater part—in excess of the power of Congress, are invalid in their entirety. Their words, as also those of the preamble, show that Congress proceeded upon the assumption that it could legislate, and was legislating, in respect of all persons and all places 'within the jurisdiction of the United States.' It recognized no occasion for any exception and made none. Its manifest purpose was to enact a law which would have a uniform operation wherever the jurisdiction of the United States extended. But the assumption was erroneous, and for that reason the purpose failed. Only by reason of the general words indicative of the intended uniformity can it be said that there was a purpose to embrace American vessels upon the high seas, the District of Columbia, and the territories. But how can the manifest purpose to establish a uniform law for the entire jurisdiction of the United States be converted into a purpose to create a law for only a small fraction of that jurisdiction? How can the use of general terms denoting an intention to enact a law which should be applicable alike in all places within that jurisdiction be said to indicate a purpose to make a law which should be applicable to a minor part of that jurisdiction and inapplicable to the major part? Besides, it is not to be forgotten that the intended law is both penal and criminal. Every act of discrimination within its terms is made an offense and misdemeanor, and for every such offense it gives to the aggrieved party a right to a penalty of $500, and subjects the offender to a fine of not less than $500 nor more than $1,000, or to imprisonment for not less than thirty days nor more than one year.

The decision of this court in United States v. Reese, 92 U. S. 214, 23 L. ed. 563, is well in point. That was a prosecution under a congressional enactment punishing election officers for refusing to any person entitled to do so the right to cast his vote. The statute was expressed in general terms, embracing some acts which Congress could condemn and others which it could not. As to the latter, it was, of course, invalid, and the claim was made that, as the act charged was not of the latter class, but of the former, the statute should be sustained as to acts like the one charged, notwithstanding the general terms were in excess of the power of Congress. But the court held otherwise, saying:

(p. 219). 'This is a penal statute, and must be construed strictly; not so strictly, indeed, as to defeat the clear intention of Congress, but the words employed must be understood in the sense they were obviously used. United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat....

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