The first case under the Civil Rights bill- An important decision to be rendered.

April 14, 1866


A legal battle between a freedman and a white "prominent citizen" have caused controversy about the enforcement of the Civil Rights bill as it is tested for the first time


Lafayette, Ind., April 11.- A colored man named Barnes brought suit against a prominent citizen this morning to enforce a contract. The defendant, for answer, sets up that the negro came into the State in violation of the thirteenth article of the constitution of the State of Indiana, which, under pains and penalties, prohibits negroes from coming into the State, and debars them from all rights to enforce contracts, etc. The plaintiff demurs to the answer, maintaining that the thirteenth article is void and of no effect, because : 1. It is in contravention of the letter and spirit of the Constitution of the United States. 2. It is in direct conflict with the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. 3. It is void under the first section of the Civil Rights bill, which gives to all persons born in the United States full right to make and enforce contracts, any law, statue, ordinance, regulation, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding. The court sustained the demurrer, and the defendant appealed to the circuit court, which is now in session. The case was submitted to-day, and after argument of counsel it was taken under advisement. Judge Gest will probably render a decision to-morrow. Under the second section of the Civil Rights bill he can only decide in favor of the negro, for the reason that an adverse decision would subject him to the penalty of one thousand dollars' fine and imprisonment. We are glad that the first case under this unconstitutional law arises in a state like Indiana ; and we are inclined to believe that the occurrences of a few such cases in each of the northern States would bring the people there to their senses. Look at the points in the demurrer of the negro : The first point is not worth an argument, because that provision has existed in the Indiana Constitution for years, and when it was adopted, Indiana might, under the Federal Constitution, have established slavery and reduced th blacks coming into the State to that condition. Certainly, then, unless the recent amendment to the Federal Constitution is inconsistent with the article in question, the latter is not unconstitutional. Now, that the amendment merely provides, first, that slavery shall not exist in the United States, and, secondly, that Congress shall have power to carry this prohibition of slavery into effect. Nothing else than this can fairly be found in the amendment; and as the article in the Indiana Constitution certainly does not establish slavery, it follows that even the amended Federal Constitution is in no wise in conflict with the Indiana Constitution. The third point in the demurrer is, that the article in question is in conflict with the new civil rights law. And quoad hoc we agree with the demurrer ; but we do not agree with it that the article is therefore "void." On the contrary we believe that even the present Supreme Court of the United States, not withstanding all of its radical prejudices, and not withstanding that Chief Justice Chase has already, ectra curia, pronounced an opinion in favor of the law, would, if this Indiana case were brought before it, hold that the law is unconstitutional. We hope this case will be taken up. There could not well occur a better one for testing the question.
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Justin Barlow




“The first case under the Civil Rights bill- An important decision to be rendered.,” Reconstructing Virginia, accessed November 26, 2022,