DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989)

Key Facts– DeShaney was beaten and permanently injured by his father, and he now sues the Department of Social Services for failing to act on his behalf and thereby depriving him of liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause.

Issue– Does the Due Process Clause impose a possible duty on state actors to protect people’s life, liberty, and property?

Holding– No

Result– Suit dismissed

Reasoning– Due Process is nowhere implied to create positive duties for the states. Rather, it protects from state action encroaching in certain areas. Further, Social Services had no affirmative duty to help the child, since Wisconsin law established no such tortious liability.

Reitman v Mulkey (1967)

Key Facts– California passed Proposition 14 in 1964, permitting people to refuse to lease, sell, or rent property to anyone for whatever reasons they choose. Reitman refused to rent a property to the Mulkeys, apparently based on their race.

Issue– Can a California law permit racial discrimination in private affairs such as renting property?

Holding– No

Result– Ruling by California court, preventing this discrimination,is affirmed.

Reasoning– Proposition 14 is a state permitting legal discrimination, even if the rule does not say so overtly. It also seems this was the lawmakers’ intent; this makes the law directly contradictory of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Shelley v. Kraemer (1948)

Key Facts– In 1911, the majority of property owners in a certain area of St. Louis made a signed agreement to exclude non-Caucasian people from their area. Now they seek to to enforce that agreement in court, to prevent non-Whites from taking possession of one of those properties.

Issue– Can state courts enforce an agreement predicated on racial discrimination in property ownership?

Holding– No

Result– Contract nullified

Reasoning– The right to acquire, enjoy, own, and dispose of property is one of those protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, a state court cannot be used to violate that right on the basis of race.

The Civil Rights Cases: United States v. Stanley (1883)

Key Facts– The 1875 Civil Rights Act prohibited businesses from discriminating against people based on race, which was intended to fit under authority granted by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Issue– Does the Fourteenth Amendment permit the federal government to prohibit private discrimination?

Holding– No

Results– Lawsuits dismissed

Reasoning– The Fourteenth Amendment is about prohibition of a certain type of state action, not individual action. The federal government can prohibit states from discriminating, but only states can constrain private discrimination.

Saenz v. Roe (1999)

Key Facts– California enacted a statute limiting the maximum welfare that new residents of the state will be eligible for to the amount payable in that resident’s previous state of residence.

Issue– Does the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment prohibit discrimination against new citizens of states?

Holding– Yes

Result– Law stricken

Reasoning– As stated in the Slaughterhouse cases, one of the Privileges conferred in the Privileges and Immunities Clause is the right, through residency, to become a citizen of a new state and thereafter enjoy the same rights as other citizens of that state.

Tips on Briefing Cases

  • Always read the footnotes.
  • If you’re having trouble keeping all of the facts of a case in your mind, writing brief notes after each paragraph is a good way of keeping track of the key points covered..

What to Look for in Briefing a Case:

Key Facts—The most important facts in the opinion will be the facts that affect the legal questions; these are usually addressed in the court reasoning, which makes it easier to identify them.

Procedural History—How did the case get here? (This is usually somewhat less important)

Issue(s)—The legal questions being decided (obviously these are of near-primary importance); these are sometimes stated clearly and sometimes not.

Result—How the issue was answered—yes or no.

Court Reasoning—Why did the court decide the case as it did? (This is the most important part). Look for the biggest reasons more than the tiny details. Also, courts often say the same thing in several ways. Look at major analytical steps taken in reaching a conclusion; this may involve reading between the lines. The two types of reasoning are the rule explanation and rule application.

Holding—What does the case contribute toward the rules of law? (This is the hardest part). Often, there are many possible interpretations of a ruling. Usually, it is best to choose the narrowest interpretation that is consistent with the language used within the opinion, but it may also be wise to consider the context of other cases and the course as a whole.

Note: The words “holding” and “rule” are often used interchangeably to describe this.

TL;DR (or, in a pinch): Read the case quickly, in the context of the book. Isolate the key issues. Simply write down the key issues and surrounding specific facts. That ought to be enough to discuss in class, if you find yourself pressed for time in reading the case.

Barron v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore (1833)

Key Facts—Barron sued the City of Baltimore, which had diverted streams and thereby ruined his wharf by making the water too shallow for boats.

Issue—Does the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment bind actions taken by cities and states?

Holding—At this point in history, no.

Result—Lawsuit dismissed.

Reasoning—The Constitution and Bill of Rights were originally intended to bind only the federal government, not the states.


Butchers’ Benevolent Association of New Orleans v. Crescent City Livestock Landing and Slaughterhouse Co. (1872)

All the meat a man can eat.
All the meat a man can eat.

Key Facts—The Louisiana legislature gave the Crescent City Livestock Landing and Slaughterhouse Co. a monopoly on livestock landing and slaughter in New Orleans, requiring that any person be allowed to slaughter animals in the slaughterhouse for a fixed fee. Butchers sued on the grounds that this violated their rights to practice their trade and enjoy equal protection and due process, forcing them into involuntary servitude.

Issue—Do the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments apply to blocking a state-created monopoly?

Holding—Not in this case , and probably never.

Result—Lower court ruling affirmed.

Reasoning—These Amendments to the Constitution were enacted to end violations by the states of African-American rights, along with future possible discrimination. Due process doesn’t apply, because the butchers haven’t be deprived of any property. Equal protection doesn’t apply, because the court construes it as being directed primarily at minority rights.

Do you really want to mess with him?
Do you really want to mess with him?

National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius

affordable care act

Key Facts—The Affordable Care Act passed, establishing an individual mandate that required private individuals to purchase health insurance. The Affordable Care Act also created a Medicaid expansion, with strings attached. The National Federation of Independent Business sued on the constitutionality of these provisions.

Issue—Did Congress have the power to enact the disputed provisions of the Affordable Care Act?

Holding—Yes regarding the individual mandate, no regarding the strings attached to Medicaid.

Result—Law partially affirmed, partially overturned.

Reasoning—The individual mandate is enforced with a penalty. The Court does not recognize the power of Congress to create this new penalty under the Commerce Clause, but says that they can interpret the penalty as a tax, and that would make it constitutional. The Medicaid expansion, on the other hand, has strings attached to it that would prevent states from receiving Medicaid funding if they do not perform specific actions mandated by Congress. This is effectively coercion, and it threatens the states, taking away their options; the Court rules that the states must have a genuine choice about accepting congressional funding and adopting new programs.

Gonzales v. Raich

medical marijuana

Key Facts—California authorized the use of medical marijuana, in violation of Congress’s Controlled Substances Act. Nevertheless, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) enforced the Controlled Substances Act in California, and raided the homes of multiple people, finding and destroying marijuana when it located it. One of the people whose marijuana was destroyed was Raich, whose marijuana use was intended to treat conditions that would otherwise be excruciatingly painful and perhaps fatal. Thus, Raich brought action against the DEA and Attorney General for violating his rights.

Issue—Does the Controlled Substances Act overrule contrary California law? If so, is the Controlled Substances Act constitutional?

Holding—Yes and yes.

Result—Judgment against the government is vacated.

Reasoning—Well-settled law on drugs settles that Congress has the power to regulate them. The Court invokes Wickard here, and says that it controls, and that Raich’s lawyers, who tried to use Lopez and Morrison as precedents here, have interpreted those cases too broadly. Though the Supreme Court has strong reservations about enforcing this law, it is within Congress’s authority to pass it.

medical marijuana rules