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Before the Federal Rights Revolution: The Impact of Northern State Civil Rights Laws in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

  • Francine S. Romero


This investigation begins to rectify the absence of scholarship on statutory protections of civil rights in northern states prior to the breakthrough federal laws of the mid-twentieth century. While there is some limited cataloging of the existence of such statutes, their subsequent import is overlooked. I tackle the question by examining state supreme court cases in which these statutes were used by plaintiffs to combat acts of private discrimination in northern states. Using West’s Decennial Digest to find all relevant claims/decisions of the first half of the twentieth century, I uncover a modest universe of 56 cases. My aim is to assess whether statutory-based claims were more likely upheld than not, and whether plaintiffs armed with these statutes were more successful than those relying solely on federal or state constitutional provisions. I report positive and significant findings for both questions, showing that these statutes mattered in judicial fora. The statistical analysis is followed by a deeper consideration of the opinions to provide a richer picture of the deference shown to these statutes by state courts, and the reluctance for judges to grant relief for private discrimination in the absence of protective statutes.


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