383 U.S. 745 (1966), argued 9 Nov. 1965, decided 28 Mar. 1966 by vote of 9 to 0; Stewart for the Court, Clark concurring, Harlan and Brennan concurring and dissenting; United States v. Price, 383 U.S. 787 (1966), argued and decided on same dates as Guest, also by vote of 9 to 0; Fortas for the Court. These cases arose from incidents of violence connected with the modern civil rights movement. Guest resulted from the Klan-style murder of Lemuel Penn, an African-American Washington, D.C., educator, in Georgia; Price stemmed from the murders of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi. In its rulings, the Court gave broad readings to two Reconstruction-era civil rights statutes—one forbidding conspiracies to interfere with rights “secured” by the Constitution and federal law, the other punishing violations, under color of law, of rights “secured or protected” by U.S. law. Guest came close, moreover, to rejecting the holding of the Civil Rights Cases (1883) that Congress's power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment extended only to state, not private, action.
In overturning a federal district judge's dismissal of most counts of an indictment against eighteen defendants in Price, Justice Abe Fortas concluded that the first of these Reconstruction-era statues reached Fourteenth Amendment rights in addition to the privileges of national citizenship it had traditionally covered and further held that private citizens acting in concert with local police could be tried for violating the other statute's “under color of law” provisions. In Guest, Justice Potter Stewart reversed the dismissal of charges against six defendants, two of whom had already been acquitted in state court of Lemuel Penn's murder. Steward upheld a count of the indictment charging an interference with interstate travel as a privilege of national citizenship. Since another count of the indictment charged false reports to police as part of the defendants’ conspiracy to intimidate African-Americans in the equal utilization of public facilities, Stewart was also able to reinstate that count without challenging the precedent created in the Civil Rights Cases. In separate opinions, however, three justices agreed that Congress had authority to punish private interferences with Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Tinsley E. Yarbrough