General Question

LostInParadise's avatar

What is the constitutional basis for the Civil Rights Act?

Asked by LostInParadise (17690 points ) December 4th, 2011

The question came up and I was at a loss for an answer. I do not wish to debate the merits of the law, which I am completely in favor of. I just want to know what power of the government made it possible. Might it be an interpretation of the 14th Amendment? Is it, like so much else, justified by Federal control of interstate commerce?

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25 Answers

marinelife's avatar

I think its basis is this section of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ”

jaytkay's avatar

Backwards question. Congress passed a law. If you think it’s unconstitutional, explain.

thorninmud's avatar

The “Equal Protection” clause of the fourteenth amendment:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

flutherother's avatar

The US Constitution defines how the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Office of the President and the US Judiciary are established and defines their powers. The Civil Rights Act went through due process of these bodies and therefore according to Article Six of the Constitution it became the supreme law of the land, and that “the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the laws or constitutions of any state notwithstanding.”

Fly's avatar

While one might think that all of the options above would uphold the Civil Rights Act, they all share one problem: they are all open to interpretation. All of the parts of the Constitution listed above could, upon interpretation, support the “separate but equal” ideas that the United States once held.

In actuality, the Civil Rights Act is upheld by the Commerce Clause, which allows the government to regulate interstate trade.

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation and prohibited discrimination against African-Americans, was passed under the Commerce Clause in order to allow the federal government to charge non-state actors with Equal Protection violations, which it had been unable to do up to that point because of the Fourteenth Amendment’s limited application to state actors. The Supreme Court found that Congress had the authority to regulate a business that served mostly interstate travelers in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States. 379 U.S. 241 (1964). It also ruled that the federal civil rights legislation could be used to regulate a restaurant, Ollie’s Barbeque, a family-owned restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama because, although most of Ollie’s customers were local, the restaurant served food which had previously crossed state lines. Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 274 (1964).
Source

jaytkay's avatar

@Fly Thanks, you bring up an enormous point – the 1964 act applies to private parties.It specifically addresses voting and public schools, too. But private discrimination is included.

Qingu's avatar

I agree with @jaykay and @flutherother.

The purpose of lawmaking is not simply to uphold or enumerate the Constitution. The burden of proof is to show that the law in question somehow contradicts the Constitution, not to prove that the Constitution forms the basis of the law.

Response moderated (Off-Topic)
CaptainHarley's avatar

The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Fly , Thanks, that is what I was looking for. What threw me was how interstate commerce could be applied to a local business, but you cleared that up.

Jaltcoh's avatar

Backwards question. Congress passed a law. If you think it’s unconstitutional, explain.

That is not how it works. Congress needs specific constitutional authority to enact a law. There doesn’t need to be a specific reason it’s unconstitutional; there needs to be a specific reason for it to be constitutional. See Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution.

Fly's avatar

@Jaltcoh Not so. That same section of the Constitution that you referenced contains the Elastic Clause, which gives Congress the power to do anything that is “necessary and proper,” as long as it doesn’t blatantly violate other sections of the Constitution. While Congress does need constitutional authority, anything that is arguably necessary and proper is considered Constitutional. It is only if something in the Constitution specifically contradicts said legislation that it can be considered unconstitutional. The courts have consistently upheld this view on constitutionality, as further proof of this.

LostInParadise's avatar

Now you have me confused. How does the Elastic Clause fit in with the clause that gives to states all rights not specified in the Constitution?

Paradox25's avatar

Like others have said, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as quoted from the Declaration of Independence makes that clear enough to me.

jaytkay's avatar

The Declaration of Independence is not the basis of US law. They declared themselves a country, the Constitution and law came later

CaptainHarley's avatar

@Fly

Some of us hold a much narrower interpretation of the Constitution, especially in light of the 10th Amendment. “The Tenth Amendment (Amendment X) to the United States Constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights, was ratified on December 15, 1791.[1] The Tenth Amendment states the Constitution’s principle of federalism by providing that powers not granted to the federal government nor prohibited to the states by the Constitution are reserved, respectively, to the states or the people.” Many people believe that the claimed powers of the federal government should be reined in, and that ever -increasing federal power is a threat to the freedom of the indivudual.

Fly's avatar

@CaptainHarley You are free to interpret the Constitution however you wish. The fact of the matter is that the Constitution does grant Congress the power to do anything that is “necessary and proper,” regardless of whether or not you agree with that power or section of the Constitution. I was simply stating a fact which illustrates how @Jaltcoh‘s argument is fundamentally incorrect.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Fly , If Congress can do whatever it wants as being “necessary and proper,” provided that it does not conflict with the rest of the Constitution, then why even bother with the Commerce Clause?

Fly's avatar

@LostInParadise It is important to note that the Elastic Clause does not take power away from the states; its only function is to explicitly state that Congress has powers not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, as long as they do not violate that Constitution. The Commerce Clause, however, grants Congress a specific power (which, for the purpose of this thread, is regulation of interstate trade) and specifically denies the states of that same power.

The purpose of the Commerce Clause is best exemplified by the early Supreme Court case Gibbons v. Ogden.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@Fly

Soooo… what are you going to do with Amendment 10 then?

Fly's avatar

@CaptainHarley This is a general question, and neither of our opinions on the 10th amendment are remotely related to the question asked. If you really want to know my opinion on the 10th amendment, ask a separate question about it, or feel free to PM me.

bkcunningham's avatar

Do a question, @CaptainHarley. Please. I’ve enjoyed this discussion and would hate to not see the discussion on this.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I disagree that the 10th Amendment is unrelated to the discussion we have here. However, because @bkcunningham asked so nicely, I’ll make a new question.

Jaltcoh's avatar

It is only if something in the Constitution specifically contradicts said legislation that it can be considered unconstitutional.

That is simply not true. The Supreme Court has struck down laws for lacking authority under the Commerce Clause. For instance, US v. Morrison. The U.S. Congress (unlike state legislatures) needs constitutional authority for any law it passes. So the OP was correct to ask what Congress’s authority was to enact the law. It’s misleading to say that constitutional authority is irrelevant and the only question is whether a law violates the Constitution.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Jaltcoh While @Fly can certainly answer for herself, legislation giving the US Congress the power to do something that the US Constitution does not give it the authority to do certainly seems like a contradiction to me. One document says “you can do this,” while the other says “you cannot do this” (albeit elliptically). Moreover, no one has questioned whether or not the OP was correct in asking the question, nor has anyone said that the question of authority is irrelevant. That’s reading more into the answers than is there.

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