The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution tackles the issues of equal protection under the law, and the rights of citizens. Unsurprisingly, the 14th Amendment was met with a great deal of contention at the time it was proposed. This was due to the fact that the states that were once part of the Confederacy were forced to ratify the amendment in order to regain representation for their states in Congress. Interestingly, the 14th Amendment – specifically its first section – is one of the most litigated sections of the Constitution. To explore this concept, consider the following 14th Amendment definition.
Definition of 14th Amendment
- The constitutional amendment that concerns equal protection under the law, and the citizenship rights of Americans.
July 9, 1868 Ratification of the amendment
What is the 14th Amendment
The 14th Amendment is that which concerns equal protection under the law, and the rights of the citizens residing in each state. The first section of the 14th Amendment is one of the most heavily litigated sections of the Constitution. For example, the 14th Amendment has been referenced in lawsuits ranging from racial segregation and abortion, to presidential elections and same-sex marriage. Simply put, the amendment limits the actions of officials at the state and local levels.
The first section of the 14th Amendment is made up of several clauses, including the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause. The Due Process Clause prevents state and local governments from depriving a person of his rights to life, liberty, or property without first receiving permission to do so from a legislative authority. Put another way, these rights cannot be stripped from a person before he is given a proper trial wherein it is determined that he deserves to lose these rights.
The Equal Protection Clause, on the other hand, requires that each state give all citizens within its jurisdiction equal protection under the law. This clause has been relied upon in several cases to rule against those who discriminate against others irrationally or unnecessarily.
Due Process Clause
The Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment refers to the fact that the people of each state are entitled to make their own laws and change them if and when it is necessary to do so. The Due Process Clause can only be applied to the states, but it is nearly identical to the 5th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which applies solely to the federal government. Both clauses have been referred to with regard to both procedural due process and substantive due process.
Procedural due process is the guarantee that a citizen will be afforded a fair legal process, and that the government will not interfere with, or encroach upon, his rights to life, liberty, or property. Substantive due process, on the other hand, is the guarantee that the citizens can live their lives free of the fear that the government will encroach upon their fundamental rights.
Equal Protection Clause
The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment was created in response to the lack of equal protection afforded by law to black Americans. Before this clause was implemented, blacks were prohibited from filing lawsuits, or providing evidence, or serving as witnesses in a legal case. They also, on average, received harsher punishments than whites for similar crimes.
The Equal Protection Clause demands that individuals in similar situations be treated as equals in the eyes of the law. The 14th Amendment is written in such a way that the Equal Protection Clause should be applied to the states. However, it is not unheard of for the clause to be applied to the federal government as well. As far as the states are concerned, however, individuals within a particular state’s jurisdiction are entitled to equal protection from that state.
Section 1 of the 14th Amendment specifically states:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Importantly, the last two clauses of the first section of the 14th Amendment specifically state that no person, whoever he may be, should not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process, and he shall not be denied equal protection under the laws of his state. This is important because, the way this is written, the amendment abolishes the practice of making certain laws applicable only to persons of a certain class level. Rather, one class cannot receive preferential treatment over another class – all individuals are to be treated as equals.
Significant changes were made after the adoption of the 14th Amendment. For example, the 14th Amendment permitted blacks to serve on juries, and prohibited Chinese Americans from being discriminated against insofar as the regulation of laundry businesses.
However, the period following the adoption of the 14th Amendment was not entirely sunshine and roses, as segregation was still legal so long as states provided similar facilities to the separated races. This is what led to designated “black” and “white” water fountains, restrooms, and even schools. The chief idea driving this supposed solution to discrimination was “separate but equal.”
The idea of “separate but equal” held fast for more than 50 years, despite several lawsuits wherein segregated facilities were proven to almost never be legitimately equal. Everything changed when the Supreme Court heard the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
14th Amendment Example in Abolishing “Separate but Equal”
An example of the 14th Amendment being argued in a court of law features most prominently in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. This case abolished the idea of “separate but equal” that the country had adhered to for the better part of a half century, and has been referred to as one of the greatest Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century.
In 1954, significant sections of the U.S. ran segregated schools, which were considered constitutional so long as the black and white facilities were designed as equal to each other. However, by the early 1950s, civil rights groups were working diligently toward ending racial segregation.
Lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) drafted class action lawsuits on behalf of black school children and their families in places like Kansas, Virginia, and South Carolina. They sought court orders that would compel school districts to permit black students to attend white public schools.
Such was the case with Brown v. Board of Education, which was filed by Oliver Brown against the Topeka, Kansas school board. Brown was a parent whose child was being denied entry into Topeka’s white schools because she was black. Brown claimed that Topeka’s racial segregation operated in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because the city’s schools, divided as they were, were not and could never be considered truly “equal.”
The federal court initially dismissed Brown’s claim, ruling that segregated public schools were significantly equal enough to be considered constitutional. Brown then appealed to the Supreme Court, which had consolidated all of the school segregation actions together and then reviewed them all at once. The Court then held in a unanimous decision that racial segregation of children in public schools did, in fact, violate the Equal Protection Clause.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
The Court noted that, in Congress’ drafting of the 14th Amendment back in the 1860s, there was never an express intention to require that public schools be integrated. However, the amendment did not prohibit such integration either. The Court held that this was of no moment, and that the 14th Amendment as written does indeed guarantee equal education.
With the importance that a good education has in a person’s life, the Court noted that any child who was denied access to a good education would be unlikely to be successful later on. Education is therefore a right that must be equally afforded to children both black and white.
Specifically, the Court wrote:
“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
“We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.”
The Court concluded its opinion by stating:
“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The decision did not, unfortunately, work to fully desegregate the United States’ public education system. However, it did set the record straight about how the Constitution should be interpreted insofar as racial equality was concerned. It also served as fuel for the fire of the civil rights movement as a whole.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Segregation – The act of separating someone or something from others of its kind.