Barron v. Baltimore

In August of 1831, the Supreme Court heard its first case in which a litigant claimed that one of his rights protected by the Bill of Rights had been violated by a State government. This was the case Barron v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (32 U.S. 243, 1883), and it so happens that the right alleged to have been violated was the right against uncompensated takings protected by the Fifth Amendment.

Barron v. Baltimore

John Barron was a Baltimore merchant, and co-owner (with John Craig) of a prosperous wharf in the eastern part of Baltimore harbor. Craig and Barron purchased the wharf in 1815 for $25,000. At the time it was one of only 34 wharves in the harbor. In the trial record, numerous witnesses described as among the best and most valuable wharves in the city, due to its location and the depth of the water surrounding it, which allowed for access by very large ships.

As part of a larger public works project, the city of Baltimore diverted several streams into the harbor directly adjacent to Craig and Barron’s wharf. Within a few years, sedimentation from the streams left the water there so shallow that Craig and Barron’s wharf could no longer service large vessels. In 1822, Craig and Barron sued the city for compensation (they asked for $20,000) for the decline in value of their wharf. The three judge panel instructed the jury that Barron should be awarded damages commensurate with his loss (if they find there to be such loss), even if they believe the defendants were acting in good faith for the public good. In March of 1828, the jury returned the verdict in favor of Barron, awarding him $4,500 (Craig had died by this time), which the court endorsed on May 5, 1828.

Baltimore appealed the verdict to Maryland court of appeals on July 31, 1828 (the case was argued in December of that year). The Maryland appeals court did not issue its decision until December of 1830: it held that the lower court had “manifestly erred” and ordered that the ruling “be reversed, annulled, and held entirely as void.” The award to Barron was overturned, and he was ordered to pay all court costs (the case was not remanded for retrial in the county court).

Barron immediately appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the case was argued there in August 1831. Barron claimed that the city of Baltimore had unconstitutionally deprived him of his property without compensation, and was thus liable for damages

The Court indicated in the record a request that counsel for Barron restrict his argument to the jurisdictional question (and thus omit the tort and damages claim)). This was an inauspicious development for Barron – it meant that the Court was likely only to consider the technical legal matter of whether it (the Supreme Court) even had the power to rule on a case such as Barron’s, and would not consider the alleged damages. The Court announced its decision in January of 1833.

Barron was thus the first case in which the Supreme Court was confronted with the argument that a provision of the Bill of Rights was violated by a state government. Marshall acknowledged that this case was an important one for this reason – but, he says, one “not of much difficulty.” Marshall, speaking for the Court, argues that the central purpose of the Constitution was to create, yet limit, a new, central government – thus the provisions therein are applicable to the government created thereby. Put differently, the Constitution simultaneously created and limited a new central government – thus those limitations apply only to the central government. This argument clearly harkens to Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist 83: “The United States, in their united or collective capacity, are the OBJECT to which all general provisions of the Constitution must necessarily be construed to refer.” That is to say, it fit well within the accepted understanding of the Constitution at the time.

Marshall argues further that the provisions of the Bill of Rights fit with Article I, Section 9 (limits on Congress), and that if the Framer’s had wanted to limit the states, they could have and would have done so in “plain and intelligible language.” Thus because the Bill of Rights applies only to the federal government, Marshall concluded that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the matter, and dismissed the case.

With the Supreme Court having dismissed the case, the decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals stood. Barron lost, and state (and by extension, municipal) authority to exercise broad powers over their internal affairs – including impinging on the free use of property – was affirmed. The flip side of that coin is, aggrieved individuals and groups could only seek protection of their rights in state courts, pursuant to state constitutions (in most cases).

This is no longer how things work. Individuals and groups now routinely make claims in federal courts that state or local governments have violated rights protected by the federal constitution. This is because of the so-called Civil War Amendments (13, 14, and 15 – especially 14), which fundamentally altered the nature of government in the United States. In a future post, I’ll discuss the 14th Amendment and spend some time elaborating how exactly it changed the way people make rights claims under the federal constitution. I think this case is still worth knowing because it helps us to understand how we got to where we are today – and reminds us that federal courts have not always been the ardent protectors of rights that they are often thought to be today.


An interesting historical aside: In 1827 (while the case was still in Baltimore county court), Roger Taney joined the case to represent Baltimore (alongside principal attorney John Scott), though Taney was no longer associated with the case when it reached the Supreme Court. Taney would go on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1836-1864), and authored one of the Court’s most infamous decisions, Dred Scott v. Sanford (in which the Court held, among other things, that African-Americans were not, and could never be, citizens of the United States).


Suggested Reading:

Amar, Akhil Reed. 1998. The Bill of Rights. Yale University Press.

Barron v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833).

Doherty, Brendan J. 2007. “Interpreting the Bill of Rights and the Nature of Federalism: Barron v. City of Baltimore” Journal of Supreme Court History 32(3): 211-228.

Ely, James W. 2008. The Guardian of Every Other Right, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press.

Hamilton, Alexander (as Publius). The Federalist No. 83.