Seventh Topic: Barron v. Baltimore and the Application of the Bill of Rights to the States



The last of the great John Marshall cases that we will discuss is a bit different from the others that we have studied. Barron v. Baltimore did not expand national power at the expense of state powers, nor did it restrict state power. It is also no longer the law of the land—it is no longer “good law,” as the lawyers say. Rather, it represents a principle of constitutional law that was unquestioned for 135 years before it was undercut and eroded into nothing in the twentieth century. Because of this history, we will use Barron to set the stage for later events that will bring us up to date.


Thus, the focus of this last topic will be on cases that were decided more than fifty years after Barron v. Baltimore, cases that interpreted the language of the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause. With that in mind, let’s set the stage by reading Marshall’s opinion in Barron.


As you read the opinion, try to determine (1) what general constitutional principle the Supreme Court was asked to adopt in Barron v. Baltimore; (2) what specific guaranteed right in the Bill of Rights Barron was asserting; (3) what the Court held in answering these two questions; and (4) what the rationale of the Court was in support of its holdings.