Bell v. Maryland 378 U.S. 226 (1964)

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BELL v. MARYLAND 378 U.S. 226 (1964)

This case was the last sit-in case decided before the public accommodations provisions of the civil rights act of 1964 took effect. Twelve black students were convicted of criminal trespass for their participation in a sit-in demonstration in Baltimore. The Supreme Court reversed their conviction and remanded to the Maryland courts for clarification of state law. Six Justices, however, addressed the larger constitutional question that had been presented to the Court in case after case in the early 1960s: whether the fourteenth amendment, in the absence of congressional legislation, provided a right to service in places of public accommodation. These six Justices divided 3–3.

Justices william o. douglas and arthur j. goldberg, concurring in the reversal of the convictions, argued that racial segregation in public accommodations imposed a caste system that was inconsistent with the abolition of slavery and with the Fourteenth Amendment's establishment of citizenship. The refusal to serve blacks, Douglas said, did not reflect any interest in the proprietor's associational right of privacy, but rather was aimed at promoting business. Because the restaurant was "property that is serving the public," it had a constitutional obligation not to exclude a portion of the public on racial grounds. Chief Justice earl warren joined Goldberg's opinion, which focused on the rights of citizenship.

Justice hugo l. black dissented, joined by Justices john marshall harlan and byron r. white. He indicated strongly his view that Congress, in enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment, could provide a right of access to public accommodations. In the absence of such a law, however, Black was unwilling to find in the Fourteenth Amendment a right to enter on the property of another against the owner's will. (At the oral argument of the Bell case, Justice Black had observed, "But this was private property.") The state was entitled to protect the owner's decision by the ordinary processes of law without converting the owner's personal prejudices into state policy, and thus state action.

Kenneth L. Karst