by The Fusionist
Here is a case resembling the plot of Blazing Saddles – if Blazing Saddles were a serious legal drama. The case, based on the “right” to compel service from a private business, ended up denying the right to jury trial.
It started in Reconstruction-era New Orleans, where the sheriff and a couple of his buddies faced a dilemma: it was around noon, and they hadn’t had any booze. One of the sheriff’s finicky friends, named Finnegan, said there wasn’t any good booze in the French Quarter, so the party decided to try the Bank Coffeehouse on Royal Street. They couldn’t get service there, and the Sheriff, Charles St. Albin Sauvinet, believed he knew the reason. The proprietor of the Bank Coffeehouse, Joseph A. Walker, had allegedly discovered the mixed-race heritage of the white-looking Sauvinet and didn’t want to serve the Sheriff for fear of alienating racist white customers.
So Sauvinet sued Walker, accusing him of racial discrimination in violation of the constitution and laws of Louisiana.
The state of Louisiana had certainly changed from prewar tines, when white people were a dominant caste and most black people were considered property. In the middle was a class of gens de couleur – free people of color, partly black and partly white. It was probably the French influence, and a Gallican “we understand zees things” tolerance in sexual matters, but there was a quasi-official system where white men took black or mixed-race mistresses and tried to set up their children in life – without all the privileges of the whites but also without the all-out slavery and oppression meted out to blacks.
Charles Sauvinet was born into this community of gens de couleur, the son of a white father and black mother. Charles was provided with an extensive education, including learning several languages. This plus his white appearance gave him more than a foot in the white world. So when Louisiana seceded, Charles Sauvinet joined a Confederate military unit made up of free people of color from New Orleans – in which metropolis that community generally lived.
Sauvinet didn’t have the chance to do much fighting – at least not on the Confederate side. When Union troops occupied New Orleans in 1862, Sauvinet and other free people of color joined the Union side. Sauvinet was first a translator for the occupiers and then an officer of black troops. Sauvinet apparently passed for white, because he was well-treated at a time when only the white officers were allowed much authority or respect. Sauvinet also registered his children as white.
After the war, former slaves joined with the free persons of color and “Radical” whites to form the state Republican Party. Two young white Northerner lawyers who had been in the Union army – Henry Clay Warmoth and Henry C. Dibble – became leaders in this party, in which Sauvinet was also active. Warmoth became governor of a Reconstructed Louisiana. Dibble, while remaining an active Republican, was appointed judge of a trial court which the Republican legislature had created to hear challenges to the Republican program of Reconstruction. Dibble’s role – which he fulfilled ably – was to reject Democratic suits against Reconstruction laws.
Sauvinet was elected as the civil sheriff in New Orleans. His job included serving and collecting rent from people in receivership, such as the landlord of the Bank Coffeehouse. It was while Sauvinet was collecting rent from Joseph A. Walker that the latter supposedly asked Sauvinet not to come to get served.
The case got to Judge Dibble’s court, where a jury weighed the evidence. Walker claimed that Sauvinet wasn’t even black, and had professed to be white. Sauvinet replied that he’d been treated as black when whites wanted to oppress him.
When the jury couldn’t agree on whether Walker had practiced illegal discrimination, Judge Dibble stepped in. A recent statute empowered the judge to give a verdict in a public-accommodation case if the jury couldn’t agree. Dibble, as it happened, knew Sauvinet, but this would certainly not have affected his impartiality. Dibble ruled against Walker and imposed $1,000 in damages, which was hardly loose change in those days.
The case ended up in the U. S. Supreme Court. Walker said he’d been deprived of his constitutional right to a trial by jury in civil cases – a right spelled out in the Seventh Amendment: “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved…” This right was now part of the privileges and immunities of citizenship, and of due process of law, claimed Walker. Suits for damages, like Sauvinet’s, were generally considered suits at common law.
Throughout Reconstruction, Louisiana politics was marred by often-deadly violence (on the part of white-supremacist Democrats) and fraud (on the part of Republicans). Elections were often disputed, leading to rival claimants for office and even rival legislative bodies.
In the 1872 elections, Warmoth led a faction of Louisiana Republicans into coalition with the Democrats, while other “regular” Republicans still opposed the Democrats and stood up for Reconstruction principles. Judge Dibble stood with the regular Republicans and sought to block some of the actions of the Warmoth/Democratic faction. Writing to Warmoth, Dibble justified his position and made a fairly revealing remark – “in every act where I can justly and properly exercise discretion I will be found with the [R]epublican party.”
In the mid-1870s, as Reconstruction was winding down, the Supreme Court ruled for Sauvinet, claiming that the states didn’t have to obey the Seventh Amendment. This was part of a series of decisions giving a narrow interpretation to the Fourteenth Amendment. These decisions tended to come from Louisiana cases, probably reflecting the politico-legal turmoil in that state.
Dibble’s term of office had come to an end in 1872, and the ex-judge moved out West, becoming a prominent attorney and California state legislator (sponsoring an antidiscrimination law), and writing a western.
The white-supremacist Louisiana Democrats took back the state from the Republicans and got rid of the public-accommodations laws. Their motive was pretty clearly racism rather than libertarianism, given that Louisiana’s Democratic government later supported forced segregation, not freedom of association. Sauvinet’s Supreme Court victory was fairly Pyrrhic: a short-lived triumph for equal accommodation was won at the expense of an important right of American citizenship, namely jury trial.
Sauvinet later killed himself when his son became mortally ill during one of New Orleans’ periodic epidemics, not really the kind of amusing ending Mel Brooks would have gone for.
Walker became head of an organization defending the right to do business on Sunday.
Law professor Paul D. Carrington praised the Walker decision a century later – “it would have been somewhat ironic in the name of due process of law to command the states to employ an institution [the civil jury] designed in part to introduce elements of non-rational emotionalism into the making of decisions purporting to enforce the law.” Yet in the very case Carrington praises, the presiding judge whose rationality and impartiality supposedly excelled the emotionalism of the jury was a zealous Republican partisan scarcely twenty-five years old. Judge Dibble commendably set his face against white supremacy, but he was hardly judicious or evenhanded.
Paul D. Carrington, “The Seventh Amendment: Some Bicentennial Reflections,” 1990 University of Chicago Legal Forum 33-86 (1990).
“The Bank Coffeehouse: Sauvinet v. Walker,” Documentary & Oral History Studio, Loyola University New Orleans, https://docstudio.org/2016/01/02/the-bank-coffeehouse/
Richard C. Cortner, The Supreme Court and the Second Bill of Rights: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Nationalization of Civil Liberties. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.
Richard Nelson Current, Those Terrible Carpetbaggers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Charles McClain, California Carpetbagger: The Career of Henry Dibble, 28 QLR 885 (2009),
Available at: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/facpubs/660.
Justin A. Nystrom, New Orleans After the Civil War: Race, Politics, and a New Birth of Freedom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Michael A. Ross, “Obstructing reconstruction: John Archibald Campbell and the legal campaign against Louisiana’s Reconstruction Government,” Civil War History, September 2003, pp. 235-53, at 248.
Walker v Sauvinet, 92 U.S. 90