St. Mary's Law Journal


The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides in order to enforce the law, Congress shall have the power to pass enabling legislation. In the exercise of this power, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1871, to implement the prohibition of slavery as required by the Thirteenth Amendment. Although the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the institution of slavery, discriminatory actions by private citizens remained prevalent. During the period following reconstruction, congressional legislation shifted focus from prohibiting state action to prohibiting the actions of private individuals who violated the civil liberties of others. Through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, Congress sought to enjoin discriminatory behavior which interfered with the free exercise of civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. The language of Section 1983 prohibits a “person” from denying those civil liberties protected by the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Prior to the enactment of Section 1983, Congress passes the Dictionary Act to define the terms of subsequent congressional enactments. Because of the ambiguous choice of words in the Dictionary Act, courts were divided as to whether municipalities and the states themselves were to be considered “persons” liable under a Section 1983 cause of action. Originally, the term “person” was so narrowly construed that not even municipalities were included within its scope. Subsequently, Section 1983 liability was extended to municipalities. When confronted with the question of whether states are persons under Section 1983 the Court first held states are not liable as persons in federal court and later asserted states are not persons for purposes of suit in state court either. Per the Court’s decision in Hafer v. Melo, a state official may be sued in his individual capacity for actions taken in his official capacity which infringe upon an individual's civil rights.


St. Mary's University School of Law