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Barron v. Baltimore

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that the Bill of Rights did not protect citizens from actions by their state governments, a ruling that stood largely unaltered until the 1920's.


The First Amendment begins with the word “Congress,” apparently making the federal government its only target, but none of the other amendments in the Bill of Rights include this language. John Barron, a Baltimore businessperson, sought to test the possibility that the Fifth Amendment in the Bill of Rights might protect him from actions of the Maryland state government. The city of Baltimore repaired the streets and dumped the leftover construction materials into the water near the wharf Barron owned, raising the bottom of the bay so much that ships could no longer dock there, depriving Barron of his property interest in his livelihood without due process or just compensation. Barron sued Baltimore to recover damages, but Baltimore was a subunit of Maryland, whose constitution, unlike the U.S. Constitution, did not provide a guarantee against eminent domain. Because Barron could not succeed in Maryland courts, he turned to the federal courts. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment applied only to the federal government and not to the states and that therefore Barron was not entitled to protection against state action under this amendment. After Barron, the courts applied this ruling consistently. Although the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment would seem to have reversed this decision, the Court did not initially agree, essentially continuing Barron in force until justices holding different views began to serve on the Court in the 1920's. Gradually, the incorporation doctrine effectively overturned the principles set out in Barron.