133 U.S. 587 (1890), argued 10 Jan. 1890, decided 3 Mar. 1890 by vote of 7 to 2; Brewer for the Court, Harlan in dissent. The Court upheld the constitutionality of a Mississippi statute that required railroads to provide “equal, but separate, accommodation for the white and colored races.” The railroad argued that the statute was unconstitutional because its substantial effect on interstate commerce violated the Commerce Clause. Unlike arguments that would mature in the twentieth century, the case did not involve the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Mississippi statute, in its effect on interstate commerce, seemed identical to a Louisiana statute that had been declared unconstitutional in Hall v. DeCuir (1878). Both statutes used race as the criterion for determining treatment of passengers. The Louisiana statute mandated that all parts of vehicles be open to passengers, regardless of race; the Mississippi statute required separation by race, into “equal” facilities. In spite of the apparent similarities, the Court upheld the Mississippi statute.
The inconsistency between the two decisions evidences the Court's struggle to define federalism in the late nineteenth century. The Court had already so narrowed the scope of the Civil War Amendments that the national government had little role to play in protecting individual rights. Here, through interpretation of the Commerce Clause, the Court continued its efforts to preserve a major role for the states. Accordingly, Justice David J. Brewer accepted without question the Supreme Court of Mississippi's view that the statute applied only to intrastate commerce. The Court saw no significant burden on interstate commerce from the requirement that railroads add an additional car upon entering the state. Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented on the ground that the state statute was an unconstitutional regulation of interstate commerce.
Walter F. Pratt, Jr.