How do Supreme Court justices decide controversial cases? Are the justices more interested in the result reached or the reason for reaching that result? The sit-in cases of the early 1960s present a case study of this important institutional and jurisprudential question. During the early 1960s, black college students entered segregated lunch counters and refused to leave upon the orders of the owners. Challenging this discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause, these protestors confronted the “state action requirement.” This requirement forbids only state action that violates equal protection rights, allowing individuals to be as intolerant as they please and setting up a conflict between “constitutional values of the highest order: liberty and equality.” Specifically, the liberty of individual business owners to engage in discrimination on their private property set against the right of black patrons to be served on terms equal to white customers.
The Supreme Court heard a series of cases involving the sit-ins during 1962 and 1963, overturning protestor convictions in every case yet avoiding resolution of the central constitutional question: Does the discrimination of private owners of businesses of public accommodation constitute state action? Scholars have always assumed (based on the Court’s obvious preference for overturning convictions) that the Court was prepared to find such private action to be state action, vindicating equality over liberty. Exploring internal Court documents, this Note rewrites this history and illuminates the concerns of the justices in rendering legal judgments within this morally and politically charged arena. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, a majority of the Court subscribed to a doctrinal position that dictated a narrow interpretation of the state action requirement, a position that vindicated the liberty interests of discriminating proprietors. Thus, the outcome of the sit-in controversy (overturned protestor convictions without a constitutional ruling) reflected a complicated, and often painful, balance between concrete results and the intellectual inclinations of the justices. Ultimately, three key justices compromised their intellectual inclinations in favor of their preferred result, ducked the constitutional question with its broad potential effects on individual rights, and left final resolution of the controversy to Congress in the 1964 Civil Rights Act; thereby implying underlying institutional and intellectual limitations on the Court.