Slavery & Lawn Maintenance

In May 2009, the City of Riverdale, Georgia ticketed “Linda Gasses for violating [a] local ordinance when she failed to cut the high grass on the portion of her property adjacent to a public right-of-way.” (The ordinance, in case you’re wondering, makes “[i]t is unlawful for either the occupant or the owner of property… to have… [on or near] …[a] sidewalk or right-of-way… any overgrown grass or weeds of a height of six inches or more or any unkempt vegetation [.]“)

Anyway, Ms. Gasses was convicted and fined $150.

Perhaps to the dismay of many or even most, Ms. Gasses did not then cut her grass, and move on. Instead she appealed the matter to the Georgia Supreme Court — twice. Her first appeal was derailed procedurally. This week, on her second appeal, the supreme court reached the merits and issued an opinion affirming the grounds supporting her conviction. It held:

  • the ordinance is not unconstitutional as violating due process and equal protection rights by forcing elderly homeowners to perform the duties of the City’s public works employees and by treating owners differently from non-owners who occupy the property.
  • the ordinance is not an invalid use of the City’s police power.
  • the ordinance — which requires “a citizen to maintain grass, weeds, and vegetation for the welfare of the community” – does not impose involuntary servitude and thus does not violate the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution or Article I, Section I, Para. XXII of the Georgia Constitution.

Ever since I was old enough to push a lawn mower, as I recall, Dad forced me to mow our lawn. That standing order lasted through my high school years. Granted, Dad was not a “state actor,” but I never thought to argue that his order (my chore) violated the United States Constitution.

That’s probably because the argument would have been silly.

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  1. casual reader says:

    The 13th Amendment doesn’t require a “state actor.” So, if your Dad TRULY forced you to mow the lawn…and that constituted “slavery” or “involuntary servitude”…your Dad indeed would have been violating the constitution.

  2. Cary Wiggins says:

    Yes indeed — you’re so right!

    A few years ago, in an article I wrote for a local nightlife publication, I appropriated one of Laurence Tribe’s observations: Apart fromt the 13th Amendment, the only way a private citizen acting in a private capacity can violate the U.S. Constitution is to transport a bottle of wine into a state in violation of its alcoholic beverage laws, thus violating the 21st Amendment. If Dad violated the 13th Amendment, I’m sure that I have at some point violated the 21st Amendment.

    You can link to that article:

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