Barron v. Baltimore

Following is the case brief for Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833).

Case Summary of Barron v. Baltimore:

  • Barron, a co-owner of a once-profitable wharf in Baltimore Harbor, sued the Mayor and City of Baltimore.   Barron claimed that city expansion resulted in sand accumulating at his wharf, making it lose all value.
  • The trial court’s decision in Barron’s favor was reversed by the State appeals court.  Barron appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Barron argued that the city’s actions amounted to a taking of his private property in violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
  • The Court held that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case because the Fifth Amendment applies to the Federal government, not to the States.

Barron v. Baltimore Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

John Barron was a co-owner of a lucrative wharf in Baltimore harbor.  The wharf was profitable because of the deep water surrounding it, allowing for large cargo vessels to dock.  In order to expand and grow, the City of Baltimore diverted the flow of certain streams and paved many streets.  As a result, a great deal of sand and earth accumulated by the wharf, making the water too shallow to dock most ships.

Barron sued the Mayor and City of Baltimore to recover his financial loss because eventually the wharf was of little value.

Procedural History:

The trial court found for Barron and awarded him $4,500.  The State appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision.  Barron then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Issue and Holding:

Does the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits taking private land for public use without just compensation, apply to the States as well as the Federal Government?  No.


Case dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution applies only to the Federal government and does not limit State governments.


Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous Court, held that the amendments to the U.S. Constitution do not use language that would lead the Court to believe that they were meant to apply to the States.  Accordingly, the Fifth Amendment does not apply to the State of Maryland in the present case.  The Court, therefore, does not have jurisdiction to decide Barron’s case.

Indeed, the Court uses several examples from Article I, sections 9 and 10 to indicate that the intent of the framers, and the language of the Constitution, are directed solely at what the Federal government can and cannot do.  The States, by contrast, have their own constitutions and may govern themselves accordingly.


This case marks an early, and important, articulation of the concept of federalism in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.  The case, however, does not state the current law.  Since passage of the Fourteenth Amendment following the Civil War, the Court has consistently found that the Bill of Rights does apply to the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

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