Barron v. Baltimore

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In Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833), the United States Supreme Court held that the Bill of Rights does not restrict state governments. This ruling was later overturned by the Fourteenth Amendment.


The city of Baltimore, Maryland, had dredged various channels in an effort to clean its harbor of debris. However, during storms, silt ran down those channels into the harbor, a large part of it being deposited under Mr. John Barron's wharf, rendering it unusable since large-draft vessels could no longer dock there. In 1822, Barron sued the city in state court, demanding compensation. Barron won the case in the district court, but the city appealed to the state's supreme court, arguing that it had the power to carry out public works, and the silting up of the harbor was a general, unintended consequence.[1] The Maryland supreme court ruled against Barron on all points. He then appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the Fifth Amendment required the city to compensate him for the "seizure" of his wharf.


Chief Justice Marshall ruled against him, saying that the Bill of Rights did not apply to the states at all. The United States Constitution, he said, formed only the federal government; the states had their own constitutions, their own Bill of Rights, and their own amendment processes. Even when the Constitution did restrict the state governments, it was with relation to Federal powers - by saying, for example, that no state could make treaties by itself.

Even the restrictions on the states, Marshall continued, proved his point further. They came right after a list of restrictions on Congress's powers where Congress was only mentioned in the first point. Yet they obviously applied just to Congress; in the very next section, states are likewise prohibited from passing bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. The Bill of Rights uses exactly the same wording: it mentions Congress at the beginning but never after. Therefore, he said, it must all apply simply to Congress.

Therefore, the City of Baltimore could seize Barron's wharf without any restrictions in the US Constitution. Thus, claiming to have no jurisdiction over the cause, the Court dismissed the case.[2]


This decision was overturned by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.


  2. Full text of Marshall's opinion