The Clauses on Equality and Justice in the Fourteenth Amendment

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What basic American values and principles are expressed in the Fourteenth Amendment?

In 1868, the United States ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, among others. It, like the other two Reconstruction Amendments, was aimed at securing and guaranteeing the rights of freedmen in the wake of the Civil War. In part, the war was fought for ideologies, and the amendment represented the values pursued by the Union: equality and justice. The Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses embodied these ideals, respectively. Both clauses have been instrumental in strengthening rule of law, but the Due Process Clause has played a more important role in protecting the freedoms of all American citizens.

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The Equal Protection Clause is a similarly strong contender for being the most influential provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ever since its ratification, it has been the focus of a bevy of judicial episodes, from Plessy to Brown. The majority of legislation passed against discrimination, notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are justified by the text of the clause, which reads, “nor shall any State...deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Overall, its impact has primarily been seen in defending civil rights, freedoms from being treated unequally by public or government institutions. With the legal justification provided, the Civil Rights movement was able to make major advances for minorities in America. Along with the brief Citizenship Clause, the Equal Protection Clause exemplifies the revolutionary ideal that all men are created equal. Equality of opportunity and equality before the law could be considered the most salient ideas championed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

However, the principle of justice, manifest in the Due Process Clause, has proven to be farther-reaching in its influence than the other provisions of the amendment. The words, “[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, through precedent, have been used to protect the civil liberties of all Americans from infringement by the states. Gitlow v. New York started the path to incorporation when the Supreme Court took “liberty” to include the liberties assured by the Bill of Rights. Today, the Court holds that virtually the entirety of the Bill of Rights applies to the states in addition to the federal government. Here lies the greater significance of the Due Process Clause: it was created to defend the rights of freed slaves and their posterity, but it succeeded in defending the rights of all citizens against the abuses of government. The Equal Protection Clause, while also vital to civil rights in the United States, was simply less expansive in its ultimate impact.

The two major clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, regardless of their relative significance, both support the notion of rule of law. The rule of law principle advocates that law, as established through constitutions, legislation, or legal precedent should govern supreme, instead of individuals. In such a legal system, no one is beyond the scope of the law. To that end, the Equal Protection Clause proposes that all citizens are subject to the law. The Due Process Clause ensures that no decisions are arbitrary, and must be based upon procedure instead of the whims of ruling officials. Together, the clauses enforce the idea of constitutional supremacy which has guided the United States since its advent.

“Equal Justice Under Law” is inscribed above the entrance to the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. This motto parallels the values of equality and justice expressed by the Fourteenth Amendment and the Constitution as a whole. The founding fathers deemed tyranny of government the greatest threat to citizens’ well-being. If these provisions had never been ratified, the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans, regardless of race, may have been abridged by state governments. Equality and justice are a means to the the most sacred of American principles: liberty.

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