Harris, United States v. 106 U.S. 629 (1883)

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HARRIS, UNITED STATES v. 106 U.S. 629 (1883)

Harris, like united states v. cruikshank (1876), involved a federal prosecution under a general conspiracy statute, and like Cruikshank it was a victory for the Ku Klux Klan. The Supreme Court had gutted the Cruikshank statute but allowed it to survive; the Harris statute, though similar, did not survive. Section two of the force act of 1871 made it a federal crime, punishable by fine and up to six years in prison, for two or more persons to conspire for the purpose of depriving anyone of the equal protection of the laws or hindering lawful authorities from securing equal protection for others. The United States prosecuted Harris who, at the head of an armed lynch mob, had broken into a Tennessee jail and captured four black prisoners, despite the efforts of the sheriff to protect them. The mob had beaten the four, killing one. Could the United States try them under the act of 1871? With Justice john marshall harlan dissenting silently, the Court held, in an opinion by Justice william woods, that the act of Congress was unconstitutional. Woods declared that the fourteenth amendment merely authorized Congress to take remedial measures against state action that violated the amendment; it applied only to acts of the states, not to acts of private individuals. The thirteenth amendment did not apply to the acts of private individuals, but this statute could apply to conspiracies by whites against whites, a subject having nothing to do with slavery. The statute, therefore, had no constitutional basis.

Leonard W. Levy

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Harris, United States v. 106 U.S. 629 (1883)

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