Few institutions in government have enjoyed as much prestige and deference as the United States Supreme Court. Nevertheless, over the years, the Court has handed down a few decisions that can only be described as “self-inflicted wounds” (to borrow a phrase from Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes).
The 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, can certainly be included among them.
Homer Plessy bought a first-class ticket and boarded a train in Louisiana. At the time, Louisiana law required railways within the state to have “equal but separate” coaches for black and white passengers. Anyone who refused to sit in the segregated coach was subject to a fine or imprisonment.
Plessy was only one-eighth black, and so he refused to sit in the coach for black passengers. Plessy was convicted, and he challenged the constitutionality of the law to the United States Supreme Court. The Court famously (or infamously) upheld the law.
The majority concluded that racially segregated facilities did not violate the guarantee of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, so long as those facilities were “separate, but equal.”
The so-called separate-but-equal doctrine remained the law of the land for more than half a century, until it was overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
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