As a general proposition, saying that the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it does is only true in a narrow legal, and sometimes temporary sense, but not always in a historical, legal or moral sense. The Supreme Court makes mistakes.
- Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court denied the historical fact that African Americans had been considered citizens by some states at the time of the ratification of the Constitution, and concluding that no African Americans could be citizens of the United States, except that they be naturalized (something then not allowed by law). Further the Court said that slaves where property and not persons. The decision was effectively overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and put on a constitutional footing by the 14th Amendment, but only after the issue was resolved by civil war and half a million deaths. Dred Scott is regarded by some to be the worst mistake the Supreme Court has made, and bad law by most everybody.
- The Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). This group of cases involved a state-chartered monopoly or franchise for the butchering of animals. A group of butchers sued, arguing that the 14th amendment’s “privileges and immunities” clause gave them a right to ply their legal trade outside the monopoly. Historians generally agree that the Court ignored the original intent of the 14th amendment by setting out a doctrine that said this clause only applied to federal citizenship (as distinct from state citizenship) and thereby only granted an extremely limited number of rights (mostly the right to run for federal office and navigation on the high seas). It did not grant citizens the equal privilege to try to make a lawful living. Only in recent times is the “privileges and immunities” clause being re-examined.
- Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Mr. Plessey, a mixed race individual, bought a first-class railway ticket, but was arrested and put in jail when he tried to use it because non-whites were, by law, required to ride in carriages assigned to their color. The Supreme Court derisively said that the 14th Amendment never intended to end racial segregation, adding “separate but equal” to the common law. This decision was eventually overturned by Brown v Board of Education of Topeka Kansas in 1954.
I suppose it is no surprise that those today wishing to get around the 14th Amendment would look to historical cases that themselves denied the history and intent of the 14th Amendment for source material. We’ve seen Dred Scott and The Slaughterhouse Cases already in Obama denialist arguments. Can Plessy be far behind?