Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Civil Rights Definition:

Personal rights which civilized communities undertake, by the enactment of positive laws, to prescribe, abridge, protect, and enforce.

Related Terms: Human Right, Civil Liberties

According to the 191 edition of the  C.J.S. (USA), a civil right is:

"... a right that is accorded to every member of a distinct community or nation, one which pertains to a person by virtue of his citizenship in a state or community; the term civil rights is defined to mean those rights which the law gives to a person."

In People v Kern, Justice Alexander of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York wrote:

"[T]he Civil Rights Clause (of the 1938 Constitution of the State of New York) ... prohibits private as well as State discrimination as to civil rights. The term civil rights was understood by the delegates at the 1938 Constitutional Convention to mean those rights which appertain to a person by virtue of his citizenship in a state or community."

In Sowers, Ohio Justice WINTER of the Common Pleas Court of Trumbull County, suggested:

"Civil rights ... are economic rights functioning as legally enforceable claims which are structured in legislation. On the other hand civil liberties are natural rights which appertain originally and essentially to each person as a human being and are inherent in his nature; such rights, which are constitutionally protected, are not actually rights but are immunities, or restraints on government."

In that context, the relevant section of the aforementioned New York State Constitution, §11:

"No person shall, because of race, color, creed or religion, be subjected to any discrimination in his or her civil rights by any other person or by any firm, corporation, or institution, or by the state or any agency or subdivision of the state."

Justice Harrison opined as follows in Byers v. San Savings Bank:

"The word civil is derived from the Latin civilis, a citizen, as distinguished from a savage or barbarian, and the term 'civil rights' comprehends all rights which civilized communities undertake, by the enactment of positive laws, to prescribe, abridge, protect, and enforce....

"[T[he term civil rights, in its broader sense, is meant those rights which are the outgrowth of civilization, which arise from the needs of civil, as distinguished from barbaric, communities, and are given, defined, and circumscribed by such positive laws, enacted by such communities, as are necessary to the maintenance of organized government. The term should not be confounded with, nor distinguished from, the term political rights, as seems to have been done by some authorities. It is a broader and more comprehensive term than the term political rights."

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