Barron v. City of Baltimore

The citation for this case is 32 US [7 Pet.] 243. It was argued on February 11, 1833 and decided on February 18, 1833 on a 7-0 vote with Chief Justice John Marshall delivering the Court’s opinion. “A wharf owner sued the city of Baltimore for economic loss occasioned by the city’s diversion of streams, which lowered the water level around his wharves. He claimed that the city took his property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This presented the question of whether the Fifth Amendment restrained the states.” [Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, p. 23]

Chief Justice Marshall wrote, “The Constitution was ordained and established by the people of the United States for themselves, for their own government, and not for the government of the individual States. Each State established a constitution for itself, and in that constitution provided such limitations and restrictions on the powers of its particular government as its judgment dictated. The people of the United States framed such a government for the United States as they supposed best adapted to their situation and best calculated to promote their interests. The powers they conferred on this government were to be exercised by itself, and the limitations on power, if expressed in general terms, are naturally, and we think necessarily, applicable to the government created by the instrument. They are limitations of power granted in the instrument itself, not of distinct governments framed by different persons and for different purposes. If these propositions be correct, the fifth amendment must be understood as restraining the power of the General Government, not as applicable to the States. In their several Constitutions, they have imposed such restrictions on their respective governments, as their own wisdom suggested, such as they deemed most proper for themselves. It is a subject on which they judge exclusively, and with which others interfere no further than they are supposed to have a common interest.” [32 US 243, 247-248]

The salient part of the decision is, “We are of opinion that the provision in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution declaring that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation is intended solely as a limitation on the exercise of power by the Government of the United States, and is not applicable to the legislation of the States. We are therefore of opinion that there is no repugnancy between the several acts of the general assembly of Maryland, given in evidence by the defendants at the trial of this cause, in the court of that State, and the Constitution of the United States. This court, therefore, has no jurisdiction of the cause, and it is dismissed.” [32 US 243, 250-251]

This opinion established that the Bill of Rights applied only to the Federal Government, not to the States. It wasn’t until the 14th Amendment that the Bill of Rights could be applied to the States, with the Supreme Court holding so in Hurtado v. California in 1884. But Barron was still authoritative well into the Twentieth Century, until the Court’s decision in Gitlow v. New York in 1925.


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