Cornell Law Review

Article Title

Unlucky Thirteenth: A Constitutional Amendment in Search of a Doctrine


Lauren Kares


Introduction In 1992 two Pennsylvania high school students unsuccessfully sued their school district to contest a new high school curriculum requiring them to perform community service in order to graduate. 1 The students in Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District claimed that this program violated the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. 2 The trial court used a balancing test that focused on the "servitude" involved. 3 The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, by contrast, used a standard of relief pioneered in criminal cases to find that the service was not "involuntary." 4 This Note discusses several cases that, like Steirer, fumble for an appropriate standard to consider Thirteenth Amendment-based civil rights claims. These cases show that Steirer is not anomalous; in fact, the Thirteenth Amendment is notable for its lack of a coherent jurisprudence. 5 The absence of a uniform standard for finding involuntary servitude renders the rights of recourse available under the Thirteenth Amendment unpredictable and largely useless. This Note considers how Thirteenth Amendment jurisprudence could evolve to become a more meaningful source of individual rights. The Note begins with a description of the structure and content of the Thirteenth Amendment as interpreted by the courts. Next, the Note introduces the rights of recourse, both civil and criminal, that exist for an individual who asserts that her Thirteenth Amendment right to be free from involuntary servitude has been violated. The Note explains the standards used by courts to ...