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Circuit Court Opinions:

Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley, United States v. Cruikshank (1874)

Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley (1870–1892)

United States v. Cruikshank, 25 F. Cas. 707 (C.C.D. La. 1874) (No. 14,897) [Fifth Circuit], affirmed, 92 U.S. 542 (1876)

Cruikshank arose from the Colfax Massacre of 1873, in which whites murdered perhaps as many as 150 African Americans in a dispute over control of local government. Out of ninety-seven people indicted, only three were convicted. Cruikshank and two other men were convicted of violating the Enforcement Act of 1870 by conspiring to deprive their victims of the free exercise and enjoyment of their constitutional rights, including the right to assemble, the right to bear arms, and the right to vote. Bradley presided over the case with circuit judge William Woods. Hearing postconviction motions to dismiss the indictments, the judges disagreed, with Bradley in favor of dismissal and Woods against. As a result of the split, the case was certified to the Supreme Court, which adopted Bradley’s position and allowed the convicted men to go free. Many historians have described the Court’s Cruikshank opinion as a watershed moment in the demise of Reconstruction, opening the door to further violence against African Americans without fear of federal prosecution.

In his circuit opinion in favor of dismissing the indictments, Bradley expressed his view of congressional power to enforce the provisions of the Constitution. When a right was itself guaranteed by the Constitution, he explained, Congress clearly had inherent power to legislate to enforce that right. Conversely, he asserted, constitutional provisions framed in terms of prohibitions upon the states did not carry the same power. In that case, Congress lacked the power to pass affirmative legislation on the subject and instead could only provide a remedy if a state were to violate the guarantee. The view that Congress could enforce these prohibitions only against states, and not against private individuals, became known as the “state action” doctrine.

The Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, in Bradley’s view, both established positive rights that were enforceable by Congress. The Thirteenth Amendment, he wrote, “is not merely a prohibition against the passage or enforcement of any law inflicting or establishing slavery or involuntary servitude, but it is a positive declaration that slavery shall not exist. It prohibits the thing.” Likewise, the Fifteenth Amendment, despite being phrased in negative terms, “confers a positive right which did not exist before”—the right to be exempt from racial discrimination regarding the right to vote. As a result, Bradley believed that Congress had the power to legislate directly on the subject. “I am inclined to the opinion,” he wrote, “that congress has the power to secure that right not only as against the unfriendly operation of state laws, but against outrage, violence, and combinations on the part of individuals, irrespective of the state laws.”

Despite suggesting an expansive view of federal civil rights enforcement, Bradley found all the counts in the Cruikshank indictments to be defective. Counts alleging violations of the rights to assemble and bear arms failed because the First and Second Amendments were solely prohibitions upon government. Bradley rejected a count alleging the deprivation of life and liberty without due process of law for the same reason. Other counts were thrown out as being overly vague and general.

A count alleging a conspiracy to deny African Americans the full and equal benefit of the laws failed because it did not specify that the perpetrators were motivated by “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” which was “an essential ingredient in the crime.” “Perhaps such a design may be inferred,” wrote Bradley, “[b]ut it ought not to have been left to inference; it should have been alleged.” Bradley found counts regarding the deprivation of voting rights to be defective on the same grounds.

The Supreme Court affirmed Bradley’s decision in 1876, largely adopting his views. The Court’s decision in Cruikshank was a significant disappointment for proponents of Reconstruction. In an immediate sense, the perpetrators of one of the most horrific instances of racial violence in American history went free. On a larger scale, the decision was a major setback for the federal government’s effort to prosecute violent crimes against African Americans.