Today marks the 135th anniversary of the devastating, and perplexing case of United States v. Harris. In United States v. Harris, the Supreme Court declared the 1871 Enforcement act; otherwise known as the Klu Klux Klan Act, unconstitutional. The Court then went on to declare that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to penalize crimes such as murder or assault. This case signaled an era of Supreme Court cases that rolled back the modest gains for African-Americans following the Civil War.
The case behind United States v. Harris was tragically all to common in American history. After the Civil War, Congress passed a series of federal laws designed to extend and protect the rights of newly freed African-Americans. Of these new laws, the Enforcement Act of 1871 was passed which held state officials liable for failing to protect the rights of citizens from the actions of others, specifically the Klu Klux Klan. The Act also made it a federal crime to assault or murder people for exercising their constitutional rights.
In early 1876 four African-American men who had been arrested on an unrecorded charge were dragged out of the Crockett County Tennessee jail by the county Sheriff and a mob of Klan members. The four men were then beaten severely and one of those men died. A grand jury Indicted Sheriff R. G. Harris and nineteen others on charges of failing to protect the rights of the four men who had been beaten.
Mr. Harris, and the other nineteen men demurred their case seeking a dismissal, arguing that Congress did not have the power to punish individuals for conspiring to deny individuals of their constitutional rights, nor the power to punish individuals for crimes such as assault or murder. The Federal Appeals court of Tennessee deadlocked on the issue, and certified the case to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on the issue on January 22nd, 1883. In a unanimous decision, the Court held that only state courts were allowed to punish citizens for murder or assault. The decision authored by Justice William Burnham Woods held that the 1871 enforcement act was unconstitutional because it abridged state rights to punish people for crimes committed in its jurisdiction. The Court further held that the Constitution only protected individuals from state action, not inaction. Thus, the Supreme Court dismissed the criminal charges against Sheriff Harris and the other nineteen men. Sheriff Harris and the other nineteen men were never brought up on state charges.
The devastating judgment of the Supreme Court signaled what would become an era of clawing back the modest civil rights gains made by African-Americans following the Civil war. The Supreme Court would go on to consistently rule against, limit, and deny civil and constitutional rights to African-Americans for the rest of 19th century. Luckily, in the 20th and 21st century, the Supreme Court would once again continue to uphold and protect civil and constitutional rights for all Americans. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can guarantee the gains made by the 20th and 21st century Supreme Court decisions are protected.
Written by Hunter J. White
 United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629, 1 S. Ct. 601 (1882)