Equal Protection Clause

The Equal Protection Clause of Fourteenth Amendment took effect in 1868, specifying that no state will deny any person equal protection under the law. This amendment to the U.S. Constitution was put in place to prevent state and local jurisdictions from passing laws that were discriminatory in nature, thus making it illegal for states to pass laws that benefit only certain groups of people. To explore this concept, consider the following Equal Protection Clause definition.

Definition of Equal Protection Clause


  1. A clause in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution that prohibits states from denying “equal protection of the laws” to any person within its jurisdiction.


Proposed in 1866; became effective in 1868

Background of the Fourteenth Amendment

In the wake of the Civil War, a series of “Black Laws” were passed in Southern States. A result of emancipation, these laws denied black people the right to own property or businesses, and limited other legal rights for African American citizens. As a response to the “Black Laws,” the federal government decided that it was the obligation of each state to ensure their specific laws did not discriminate against African Americans or other minorities. The amendment was proposed in 1866, and by 1868, 28 of the 37 states ratified it, making it law.

Basics of the Equal Protection Clause

The Equal Protection Clause does not specify that all people have to be treated equally under all circumstances. For instance, states may require people to pass a vision as a condition of receiving a driver’s license. However, states cannot deny a person a driver’s license because of their race, gender, or other minority considerations. The clause also states that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process, and that no state can enforce laws that hinder the privileges of its citizens. Over the course of a century and a half, a variety of cases pertaining to the Equal Protection Clause has helped dismantle racial segregation and discrimination within the United States.

State and Federal Government

The mandates of the Equal Protection Clause are limited to state governments, but the Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Bolling v Sharpe that Equal Protection under the 14th Amendment applies to the federal government as well, and falls under the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Plessy v Ferguson (1896)

One of the most important cases pertaining to the Equal Protection Clause took place during the 1986 Supreme Court hearing of Plessy v Ferguson. This landmark case upheld the constitutionality of state laws that required racial segregation within public areas.

In 1890, Louisiana passed a law called the “Separate Car Act,” which required railways to provide separate accommodations for white and black people riding the railroads, as long as the accommodations were equal. A group of black, Creole, and white citizens formed a “Committee of Citizens” dedicated to seeing the law repealed. On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a member of the group who was of one-eighth African descent, and thus classified as “black,” boarded the “white” section of the train.

When the railway asked Plessy to vacate the white section, he refused and was arrested. As the court case commenced, Plessy’s lawyers claimed that the state law requiring segregated trains denied his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The judge presiding over the case ruled that the state had the right to regulate the railroad companies as long as they operated within the state. The Committee of Citizens gathered and filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of Louisiana, but the ruling was upheld. The matter was then taken to the United States Supreme Court in 1896, where it was once again upheld.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

In 1954, the ruling in Plessy v Ferguson was overturned with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, which revolved around the issue of separation of schools for white and black students. A unanimous decision was handed down by the Supreme Court justices, stating that separate educational facilities for white and blacks is unequal and violates the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This case was a huge boon to the nation’s effort to end racial segregation within the United States.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appeal – asking a higher court to review or reverse a decision that has been made by a lower court. This can be done for both civil and criminal cases.
  • Discriminatory – showing unfair distinction between different groups of people or thing. This often pertains to race, age, and gender.
  • Emancipation – an act that frees peoples, or a group of people from social, legal, or political restrictions. For instance, freeing black people from slavery from considered emancipation.
  • Jurisdiction – the power to make legal decisions and judgments in certain areas or states. This can also apply to countries.
  • Separate Car Act – a law passed in 1890 in Louisiana stating that all railways companies can separate whites and blacks as long as the accommodations are equal.
  • Upheld – the confirmation of something after it has been questioned within a court.