The Court strikes the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had prohibited racial discrimination by hotels, theaters, and other forms of public accommodation. The decision in the so-called Civil Rights Cases, a consolidation of suits from four states, holds that the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide the federal government with the power to ban private discrimination, and that the denial of public accommodation does not constitute a "badge of slavery" and is therefore not prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment.
President Grover Cleveland appoints Melville Fuller Chief Justice.
The Court decides, in the case In re Kemmler, that New York may continue to use the newly invented electric chair to execute criminals. The decision holds that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment applies to capital punishment only if it involves "torture or lingering death" -- which it determines death by the electric chair does not do.
A group portrait of the Supreme Court justices, 1885.
Reproduction courtesy of the Library of Congress
Since the Judiciary Act of 1789, Supreme Court justices have "ridden circuit," a duty that required them to spend a majority of the year traveling to sit as trial judges in circuit courts. Although the Judiciary Act of 1891, which establishes the U.S. Court of Appeals, does not specifically relieve the justices of this duty, in practice they are no longer expected to sit in these courts. The circuit courts are formally abolished in 1911.
The Court, in Pollack v. Farmer's Loan & Trust Co., finds a federal income tax unconstitutional. Sections 2 and 9 of Article I of the Constitution state that federal capitation taxes may not be imposed directly, but must be apportioned based on the population of each state. The decision is reversed by the federal income tax amendment (the Sixteenth) 19 years later, in 1913.
In a case arising from one of the first suits brought by the Justice Department under the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Court votes eight to one to limit the reach of the act. The decision in United States v. E. C. Knight Company holds that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution does not allow Congress to regulate the "manufacture" of products -- in this case, sugar -- later shipped from one state to another becuase the manufacture itself does not take place in interstate commerce. The monopoly held by the American Sugar Refining Company and its subsidiaries is allowed to stand.