Barron v. City of Baltimore was a case in the United States Supreme Court, decided in 1833. Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the takings clause of Amendment V, and by extension much of the Bill of Rights, only applied to the U.S. federal government, and not to the governments of the states.

Facts of the Case

John Barron inherited a large wharf on the east side of Baltimore, Maryland. It had access to the deepest water in Baltimore Harbor, and was therefore an excellent money-maker. Starting around 1815, the City of Baltimore began diverting streams that delivered water to the area around the wharf, a measure necessary for the grading of new roads. The stream diversions caused the area around the wharf to fill with land, rendering the water too shallow for many vessels to dock.

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America provides, among other things, that "...nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation." Barron sued the City of Baltimore in 1822, claiming that their stream diversion fell under this "Takings Clause," and that he was therefore entitled to just compensation.

The Baltimore County Court awarded Barron $4,500 in damages. Baltimore appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, which reversed the judgment. Barron appealed to the Supreme Court on writ of error (a practice permitted since the Martin v. Hunter's Lessee decision a decade and a half before).

The Decision

Marshall established the thrust of the case immediately. "The plaintiff in error contends, that it comes within that clause in the fifth amendment to the constitution, which inhibits the taking of private property for public use, without just compensation. He insists, that this amendment being in favor of the liberty of the citizen, ought to be so construed as to restrain the legislative power of a state, as well as that of the United States. If this proposition be untrue, the court can take no jurisdiction of the cause. The question thus presented is, we think, of great importance, but not of much difficulty."

His first argument in favor of restricting the Fifth Amendment stemmed from the nature of the federal government's mandate. "The people of the United States framed such a government for the United States as they supposed best adapted to their situation and best calculated to promote their interests. The powers they conferred on this government were to be exercised by itself; and the limitations on power, if expressed in general terms, are naturally, and, we think, necessarily, applicable to the government created by the instrument."

Marshall then approached the question contextually, using the surrounding amendments as clues to the meaning of the fifth. "The preceding section contains restrictions which are obviously intended for the exclusive purpose of restraining the exercise of power by the departments of the general government," Marshall wrote. Amendment I, for instance, begins with the words: "Congress shall make no law...," expressly limiting its scope to the federal government. Other parts of the Constitution explicitly referred to states, such as Article I, Section X: "No state shall pass any bill of attainder or ex post facto law." This clause itself was preceded by Section IX, which generally denied the government the ability to do the same thing. Marshall inferred that language not specifically directed at the states was therefore intended to apply only to the federal government. "Had congress engaged in the extraordinary occupation of improving the constitutions of the several states, by affording the people additional protection from the exercise of power by their own governments, in matters which concerned themselves alone, they would have declared this purpose in plain and intelligible language."

The final argument drew from history. Looking back at the creation of the Constitution, Marshall wrote that "serious fears were extensively entertained, that those powers which the patriot statesmen, who then watched over the interests of our country, deemed essential to union, and to the attainment of those unvaluable objects for which union was sought, might be exercised in a manner dangerous to liberty. In almost every convention by which the constitution was adopted, amendments to guard against the abuse of power were recommended. These amendments demanded security against the apprehended encroachments of the general government--not against those of the local governments."

Thus, Marshall reasoned that Barron was not entitled to appeal his case to the United States Supreme Court, and dismissed the suit for lack of jurisdiction. If Barron was entitled to a remedy, he had to obtain it under state law; since the Maryland courts had already spoken, his fight for just compensation was over.

The Fifth Amendment, and other constitutional provisions not explicitly or implicitly applicable to states, remained inapplicable to the states until Amendment XIV was ratified in the wake of the Civil War.


  • Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833)

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