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petit juror in any case arising under the Act unless he took and subscribed an oath in open court "that he has never, directly or indirectly, counselled, advised, or voluntarily aided any such combination or conspiracy." Heavy penalties and liabilities were laid upon any person who, with knowledge of such conspiracies, aided them or failed to do what he could to suppress them.
The Act, popularly known as the Ku Klux Act, was passed by a partisan vote in a highly inflamed atmosphere. It was preceded by spirited debate which pointed out its grave character and susceptibility to abuse, and its defects were soon realized when its execution brought about a severe reaction.
The provision establishing criminal conspiracies in language indistinguishable from that used to describe civil conspiracies came to judgment in United States v. Harris, 106 U. S. 629. It was held unconstitutional. This decision was in harmony with that of other important decisions during that period 10 by a Court, every member of
The background of this Act, the nature of the debates which preceded its passage, and the reaction it produced are set forth in Bowers, The Tragic Era, 340–348.
R. S. § 5519, under which the prosecution was brought, provided: "If two or more persons in any State or Territory conspire, or go in disguise on the highway or on the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws; or for the purpose of preventing or hindering the constituted authorities of any State or Territory from giving or securing to all persons within such State or Territory the equal protection of the laws; each of such persons shall be punished by a fine of not less than five hundred nor more than five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment, with or without hard labor, not less than six months nor more than six years, or by both such fine and imprisonment."
10 Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36; United States v. Reese, 92 U. S. 214; United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542; Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3.
which had been appointed by President Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Garfield or Arthur-all indoctrinated in the cause which produced the Fourteenth Amendment, but convinced that it was not to be used to centralize power so as to upset the federal system.
While we have not been in agreement as to the interpretation and application of some of the post-Civil War legislation," the Court recently unanimously declared, through the Chief Justice:
"Since the decision of this Court in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U. S. 3 (1883), the principle has become firmly embedded in our constitutional law that the action inhibited by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment is only such action as may fairly be said to be that of the States. That Amendment erects no shield against merely private conduct, however discriminatory or wrongful."
And MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, dissenting, has quoted with approval from the Cruikshank case, ""The fourteenth amendment prohibits a State from denying to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws; but this provision does not, any more than the one which precedes it . . . add anything to the rights which one citizen has under the Constitution against another.' 92 U. S. at pp. 554-555." And " "The only obligation resting upon the United States is to see that the States do not deny the right. This the amendment guarantees, but no more. The power of the national government is limited to the enforcement of this guaranty.'" He summed up: "The Fourteenth Amendment protects the individual against state action, not against wrongs done by individuals.
11 Screws v. United States, 325 U. S. 91.
12 Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U. S. 1, 13.
13 United States v. Williams, 341 U. S. 70, 92.
It is apparent that, if this complaint meets the requirements of this Act, it raises constitutional problems of the first magnitude that, in the light of history, are not without difficulty. These would include issues as to congressional power under and apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, the reserved power of the States, the content of rights derived from national as distinguished from state citizenship, and the question of separability of the Act in its application to those two classes of rights. The latter question was long ago decided adversely to the plaintiffs. Baldwin v. Franks, 120 U. S. 678. Before we embark upon such a constitutional inquiry, it is necessary to satisfy ourselves that the attempt to allege a cause of action within the purview of the statute has been successful.
The section under which this action is brought falls into two divisions. The forepart defines conspiracies that may become the basis of liability, and the latter portion defines overt acts necessary to consummate the conspiracy as an actionable wrong. While a mere unlawful agreement or conspiracy may be made a federal crime, as it was at common law," this statute does not make the mere agreement or understanding for concerted action which constitutes the forbidden conspiracy an actionable wrong unless it matures into some action that inflicts injury. That, we think, is the significance of the second division of the section.
The provision with reference to the overt act will bear repeating, with emphasis supplied: ". . . [I]n any case of conspiracy set forth in this section, if one or more persons engaged therein do, or cause to be done, any act in furtherance of the object of such conspiracy, whereby an
14 Nash v. United States, 229 U. S. 373, 378; United States v. Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., 310 U. S. 150, 252.
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other is injured in his person or property, or deprived of having and exercising any right or privilege of a citizen of the United States, the party so injured or deprived may have an action for the recovery of damages..
In the light of the dictum in United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 552, we assume, without deciding, that the facts pleaded show that defendants did deprive plaintiffs "of having and exercising" a federal right which, provided the defendants were engaged in a "conspiracy set forth in this section," would bring the case within the Act.
The "conspiracy" required is differently stated from the required overt act and we think the difference is not accidental but significant. Its essentials, with emphasis supplied, are that two or more persons must conspire (1) for the purpose of depriving any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the law; or (2) for the purpose of preventing or hindering the constituted authorities from giving or securing to all persons the equal protection of the laws; or (3) to prevent by force, intimidation, or threat, any citizen entitled to vote from giving his support or advocacy in a legal manner toward election of an elector for President or a member of Congress; or (4) to injure any citizen in person or property on account of such support or advocacy. There is no claim that any allegation brings this case within the provisions that we have numbered (2), (3), and (4), so we may eliminate any consideration of those categories. The complaint is within the statute only if it alleges a conspiracy of the first described class. It is apparent that this part of the Act defines conspiracies of a very limited character. They must, we repeat, be "for the purpose of depriving
of the equal protection of the laws, or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws." (Italics supplied.)
Passing the argument, fully developed in the Civil Rights Cases, that an individual or group of individuals not in office cannot deprive anybody of constitutional rights, though they may invade or violate those rights, it is clear that this statute does not attempt to reach a conspiracy to deprive one of rights, unless it is a deprivation of equality, of "equal protection of the law," or of "equal privileges and immunities under the law." That accords with the purpose of the Act to put the lately freed Negro on an equal footing before the law with his former master. The Act apparently deemed that adequate and went no further.
What we have here is not a conspiracy to affect in any way these plaintiffs' equality of protection by the law, or their equality of privileges and immunities under the law. There is not the slightest allegation that defendants were conscious of or trying to influence the law, or were endeavoring to obstruct or interfere with it. The only inequality suggested is that the defendants broke up plaintiffs' meeting and did not break up meetings of others with whose sentiments they agreed. To be sure, this is not equal injury, but it is no more a deprivation of "equal protection" or of "equal privileges and immunities" than it would be for one to assault one neighbor without assaulting them all, or to libel some persons without mention of others. Such private discrimination is not inequality before the law unless there is some manipulation of the law or its agencies to give sanction or sanctuary for doing so. Plaintiffs' rights were certainly invaded, disregarded and lawlessly violated, but neither their rights nor their equality of rights under the law have been, or were intended to be, denied or impaired. Their rights under the laws and to protection of the laws remain untouched and equal to the rights of every other Californian, and may be vindicated in the same way and with the same effect as