During the course of paving streets and performing other civic improvements, the City of Baltimore diverted streams so that they emptied into the city’s harbor in the vicinity of John Barron’s deep-water dock. The area around the dock subsequently became filled with silt, resulting in the virtual destruction of the dock’s economic value. This action by the City of Baltimore, Barron argued, violated the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which forbids the taking of private property for public uses without just compensation. Barron therefore sued the City of Baltimore demanding the compensation to which he believed he was entitled under the Just Compensation Clause. Having ultimately lost his suit in the Maryland courts, Barron then appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Barron v. Baltimore (1833), Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous Court, noted that the issue raised in Barron’s case was “of great importance, but not of much difficulty.” This was so, he said, because it was well understood that the Bill of Rights had been added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 because of fears that the national government would encroach upon basic liberties of the people. The rights in the Bill of Rights, including the Just Compensation Clause of the Fifth Amendment, Marshall continued, were therefore restrictions of the power of the national government alone, and were not applicable as restrictions of the powers of the state and local governments. Since under this interpretation, none of the rights in the Bill of Rights, including the Just Compensation Clause, were restrictive of the powers of the City of Baltimore or the State of Maryland, Barron’s case was dismissed by the Court for lack of jurisdiction.
As a result of the decision in Barron v. Baltimore, prior to the Civil War the rights in the Bill of Rights could only be validly invoked in challenges to exercises of power by the national government, and not exercises of power by state and local governments. Following the Civil War and the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, however, the decision in Barron v. Baltimore was modified, since the Supreme Court between 1897 and 1969 interpreted the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to apply most, but not all, of the rights in the Bill of Rights as restrictions of the powers of state and local governments. Among the rights made so applicable to the states is the right to just compensation for private property taken for public uses, which the Supreme Court held to be guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1897.
Brendan J. Doherty, “Interpreting the Bill of Rights and the Nature of Federalism: Barron v. City of Baltimore,” Journal of Supreme Court History 32, no. 3 (November 2007): 211–28; Daniel J. Elazar, “Constitutional Rights in the Federal System,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 22, no. 2 (1992): 1–3; Jason Mazzone, “The Bill of Rights in the Early State Courts,” Minnesota Law Review 92, no. 1 (2007): 1-82.