Guest, United States v. 383 U.S. 745 (1966)

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GUEST, UNITED STATES v. 383 U.S. 745 (1966)

This case raised important questions about Congress's power to enforce the fourteenth amendment and about the scope of section 241 of Title 18 of the United States Code, a federal criminal civil rights statute deriving from section 6 of the force act of 1870. Section 241 outlaws conspiracies to interfere with rights or privileges secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. A group of whites allegedly murdered Lemuel A. Penn, a black Army officer, while he was driving through Georgia on his way to Washington, D.C. Two of the whites were charged with murder and acquitted by a state court jury. They and others then were indicted under section 241 for conspiracy to deprive blacks of specified constitutional rights by shooting, beating, and otherwise harassing them and by making false criminal accusations causing the blacks to be arrested. The rights allegedly deprived included the right to use state facilities free of racial discrimination and the right to travel freely throughout the United States. The Supreme Court held that the alleged conduct constituted a crime under section 241, punishable by Congress under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Guest 's principal significance stems from two separate opinions, joined by a total of six Justices, that addressed the question whether the Fourteenth Amendment empowers Congress to outlaw private racially discriminatory behavior. In an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice william j. brennan, joined by Chief Justice earl warren and Justice william o. douglas, stated that section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment grants Congress authority to punish individuals, public or private, who interfere with the right to equal use of state facilities. Justice tom c. clark, in a concurring opinion joined by Justices hugo l. black and abe fortas, in effect agreed with the portion of Justice Brennan's opinion relating to Congress's power. Justice Clark's opinion stated that there could be no doubt about Congress's power to punish all public and private conspiracies that interfere with Fourteenth Amendment rights, "with or without state action."

Guest also raised the question whether, in light of the state action doctrine, the defendants, all private persons, were legally capable of depriving others of Fourteenth Amendment rights within the meaning of section 241. Justice potter stewart's opinion for the Court, which, as to this point, Justice Clark's opinion expressly endorsed, avoided the issue by construing the indictment's allegation that the conspiracy was accomplished in part by "causing the arrest of Negroes by means of false reports that such Negroes had committed criminal acts" to be an allegation of state involvement. Justice Brennan read Justice Stewart's opinion to mean that a conspiracy by private persons to interfere with Fourteenth Amendment rights was not a conspiracy to interfere with a right secured by the Constitution within the meaning of section 241. Justice Brennan rejected this interpretation, arguing that private persons could deprive blacks of rights "secured" by the Constitution "even though only governmental interferences with the exercise of that right are prohibited by the Constitution itself."

Other aspects of Guest generated less disagreement among the Justices. The case revived a question addressed in screws v. united states (1945) when the Court interpreted section 242 (a remnant of the civil rights act of 1866). Sections 241 and 242 define proscribed behavior as conduct violating constitutional rights. Since constitutional standards change, defendants argued that the sections were unconstitutionally vague. As in Screws, the Court construed the statute to require a specific intent to violate constitutional rights and, therefore, found section 241 not unconstitutionally vague. And the Court found the right to travel throughout the United States to be a basic constitutional right that, like freedom from involuntary servitude, is protected even as against private interference. Only Justice john marshall harlan dissented from the holding that the right to travel is protected against private interference.

Both the suggestion by six Justices (through the Brennan and Clark opinions) concerning Congress's power under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment and Justice Brennan's views about the scope of section 241 are difficult to reconcile with important nineteenth-century decisions. In united states v. cruikshank (1876), one of the first cases construing Reconstruction-era civil rights legislation, indictments charging violations of section 6 of the force act of 1870 were ordered dismissed in part on the ground that Fourteenth Amendment rights could not be violated by private citizens. In united states v. harris (1883) the Court held unconstitutional a civil rights statute that punished private conspiracies to interfere with rights of equality. The provision struck down in Harris, which stemmed from section 2 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, was so similar to section 241 that, until Guest, it seemed unlikely that section 241 could be applied to private conspiracies to interfere with rights of equality. And Guest 's expansive view of Congress's Fourteenth Amendment powers is difficult to reconcile with the Court's decision in the civil rights cases (1883).

Guest thus represents a shift in attitude toward Congress's Fourteenth Amendment power to reach private discrimination. But Guest also is part of a larger shift in attitude toward the Civil War amendments. In katzenbach v. morgan (1966) and south carolina v. katzenbach (1966), cases decided during the same term as Guest, the Court for the first time found Congress to have broad powers to interpret and define the content of the Fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.

Guest 's generous attitude toward Congress's power has had less influence than might have been expected. Prior to Guest,heart of atlanta motel, inc. v. united states (1964) and katzenbach v. mcclung (1964) already had found Congress to have broad power under the commerce clause to reach discrimination in facilities affecting interstate commerce. In jones v. alfred h. mayer co. (1968), the Court found Congress to have broad thirteenth amendment powers to reach private discrimination in all areas. Jones and the Commerce Clause cases rendered moot much of the question about Congress's Fourteenth Amendment powers. griffin v. breckenridge (1971), where the Court again faced the question of Congress's power to reach private discriminatory conspiracies, underscores Guest 's modest influence. Griffin involved a civil statute, section 1985(3), that is similar to section 241. By the time of Griffin, however, the Court could rely on Congress's Thirteenth Amendment powers to sustain legislation proscribing private racial conspiracies. Guest 's possible implications will be realized only in cases, if any, to which Congress's Thirteenth Amendment and commerce clause powers are inapplicable.

Theodore Eisenberg


Cox, Archibald 1966 Foreword: Constitutional Adjudication and the Promotion of Human Rights. Harvard Law Review 80:91–122.

Note 1967 Fourteenth Amendment Congressional Power to Legislate Against Private Discrimination: The Guest Case. Cornell Law Quarterly 52:586–599.

——1974 Federal Power to Regulate Private Discrimination: The Revival of the Enforcement Clauses of the Reconstruction Era Amendments. Columbia Law Review 74:449–527.

Tribe, Laurence H. 1978 American Constitutional Law. Pages 273–275. Mineola, N.Y.: Foundation Press

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Guest, United States v. 383 U.S. 745 (1966)

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