92 U.S. 542 (1876), argued 30–31 Mar. and 30 Apr. 1875, decided 27 Mar. 1876 by vote of 9 to 0; Waite for the Court, Clifford concurring. The Cruikshank case arose after an armed white force in Reconstruction Louisiana killed more than one hundred black men over a disputed gubernatorial election. Three white men involved in the 1873 Colfax Massacre were found guilty of violating section 6 of the Enforcement Act of 1870, which forbade conspiracies to deny the constitutional rights of any citizen. The convicted defendants appealed on the grounds that the indictments were faulty.
The case came before a Supreme Court that had evinced a growing concern about congressional efforts to broaden federal power. Emphasizing the distinctions between the rights of federal and state citizens, the Court found the indictments deficient because they did not allege the denial of federal rights. The right to assemble and to bear arms in the First and Second Amendments, respectively, protected citizens only from congressional interference. The right to due process and equal protection in the Fourteenth Amendment limited actions by states, not those by individuals. Finally, interference with the right to vote was not an actionable offense because the indictment did not allege that the defendants’ actions were motivated by the victims’ race.
The Court concluded that punishment for the offenses committed in the Colfax Massacre lay with the state. Unfortunately, the likelihood that southern states would prosecute such offenses was small. The Cruikshank opinion encouraged violence in the Reconstruction South and is one of several Supreme Court decisions that marked the nation's retreat from Reconstruction.
Lucy E. Salyer