Griffin v. Breckenridge

PETITIONER: Eugene Griffin et al.
RESPONDENT: Lavon Breckenridge et al.
LOCATION: Kemper County

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 403 US 88 (1971)
ARGUED: Jan 13, 1971 / Jan 14, 1971
DECIDED: Jun 07, 1971

Facts of the case

A group of black Mississippi citizens filed for damages against two white Mississippi citizens pursuant to 42 U.S.C Section 1985 subsection 3 which protects against conspirators interfering with the civil rights of others. R.G. Grady, a citizen of Tennessee, was driving the plaintiffs in the suit along a public highway, when the defendants, acting under the misconception that Grady worked for the organization Civil Rights for Negroes, allegedly pulled their truck into the path of Grady's car, causing him to stop. The defendants were accused of forcing Grady and his passengers to step out of the car and preventing their escape. According to the plaintiffs, the defendant James Calvin Breckenridge proceeded to beat Grady and the plaintiffs in the head with a club, injuring them. The defendants also threatened the plaintiffs verbally and pointed firearms at them. The United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the plaintiffs' complaint, basing their decision on a previous case, Collins v. Hardyman. This case limited section 1985 subsection 3 to apply only to conspiracies somehow related to state laws or state officials, to avoid possible conflict with the U.S. Constitution. The Court of Appeals agreed.


1) What is the scope and constitutionality, primarily with respect to section 2 of the Thirteenth Amendment in relation to section 1985 subsection 3? 2) Did the defendants of the civil suit disobey the statute?

Media for Griffin v. Breckenridge

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 13, 1971 in Griffin v. Breckenridge

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 14, 1971 in Griffin v. Breckenridge

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Wallace?

Lawrence G. Wallace:

Thank you Mr. Chief Justice.

If it please the Court, I would like to take a somewhat indirect approach now to the statutory issue that I began to discuss yesterday.

And while this may seem a bit roundabout, I believe it will serve to help to clarify our position in this case.

And I'd like to start by reminding the Court of the terms of the statutory provision of the 1866 Act that was before it two terms ago, in Jones against Mayer & Company, it's now Section 1982 of Title 42 which reads "all citizens of the United States shall have the same right in every state and territory as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell hold and convey real and personal property" and a similar provision of the 1866 Act with respect entering into contracts and to suing and beast in being sued is now in Section 1981.

There is in the complaint to the present case, an allegation that's rather similar in its terms, at least in what we deem to be a crucial term and that is on page 6 of the appendix in paragraph 12, where there's an allegation that by this conspiracy, the defendants have willfully and maliciously intimidated and prevented the plaintiffs from enjoying and exercising, going down to the bottom of this paragraph, their rights to travel the public highways without restrained in the same terms as white citizens in Kemper County, Mississippi.

And I believe this similarity has some relevance because of the threat of continuity that runs through the adoption of all three of these amendments to the Constitution and through the whole serious of legislations through the 1866, 1870, and 1871 Acts and even the 1875 Act which is not involved here.

The overriding purpose behind all of these provisions and it colors the way they should be read and interpreted as this Court has said many times, was to achieve a meaningful emancipation for the former slaves in various aspects of community life.

This was certainly a purpose to be achieved in 1870 legislation and when Congress was made aware that the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other private conspirators were interfering with the achievements of this objective, Congress went on in 1871 to enact the legislation that’s now before us and that this Court is to asked to interpret in this case.

The first section of that legislation is now Section 1983 of Title 42 and that is quoted on page 10 of our brief, our grey covered brief in this case.

That provided that every person who under color of any statute or ordinance, regulation, customer usage of any state or territory, under color of law, subjects or causes to be subjected, any citizens of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws is liable to a suit for damages.

Now that covered liability by public officials who acting under color of law have deprived complainants of rights including -- of rights under fourth -- under the Constitution including Fourteenth Amendment rights.

This Court has several times held that the statues applies to Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well to other rights in Screws against United States, Monroe against Pape, and so forth.

That was not, as this Court noted last term in its opinion in Hedequist against Crest Co, that was not the most controversial provision of 1871 legislation.

It was Section 2 in which Congress went on to reach at least in terms, actions that are not taken under color of law that provoked the controversy.

And before proceeding to Section 2, I want to say one other thing about the Section 1983.

Not only did it reach actions by public officials and make them subject to suit for damages, it also extended, it has been held a number of times to actions by private persons taken in concert with public officials.

Those two are actions taken under color of law as this Court held with respect to the comparable criminal provision in the United States against Price, and a number of Court Of Appeals cases have held the same thing with respect to 1983 and a footnote in the Price opinion indicates that this is an accurate analysis.

So, with this in mind as what was accomplished in Section 1 of the legislation, I think we can turn to an analysis of what did Section 2 of the same law add.

Now, Section 2 is insofar as we're concern with it, the civil part of Section 2 is now the provision before us, Section 1985 (3) of Title 42, it's set forth in full on page 2 of our brief, but I think for purposes of our discussion, it will be more convenient to refer to the page 7 of our brief in which we have quoted from the Collins opinion.

This Court's adumbration of the various provisions with numbering added to it that are covered in 1985 (3) and here is where the Congress gave attention to activities of private conspirators and attempted to provide redress in order to, as I said the outset, achieve the meaningful emancipation that was the overriding objective.

One of the things that the Congress provided redress for where conspiracies by two or more persons in the part number 2 here on page 7 to prevent or hinder the constituted authorities from giving or securing to all persons, the equal protection of the laws.

Interference with public officials, even though it not be conspiratorial, not be taken on concert, that is conspiratorial with the public officials, even though it not be taken in concert with the public officials, interference with there providing of equal protection is covered by that part of 1985 (3).

Interference in concert is already covered in Section 1 of the Act as I said and then the part numbered 3 and 4 provides specific protections against conspiracies, to interfere with voting in federal elections and campaigning in federal elections.

Now, the question remaining and the key question in this case is what does the first part add to these provisions?

What further meaning is there in the first part of 1985 (3) are approach to any statue as that each part must mean something and not be merely redundant of what is enacted right along with it?

How can two or more private persons conspire without in someway acting under the color of law or in concert with public officials so as to deprive any person or class persons of equal protection of the laws or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws?

They don't have the authority to do that.

That is the conceptual difficulty with trying to attribute a meaning to this part of the statute that goes beyond what Congress had already done.

In some ways, it's very similar to the difficulty that three justices of the court in Screws against the United States and Mr. Justice Frankfurter in Monroe against Pape had with the question of how can a state officials, acting contrary to state law, be depriving an individual of rights that the states guarantees him?