Law Day 2017 & The Fourteenth Amendment : Transforming American Democracy
May 1 has been proclaimed Law Day by every President of the United States since Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is observed throughout the nation as a day to celebrate the freedoms we enjoy, to reflect upon the ideals of liberty and justice that we hold dear, and to instill—especially in young people—an abiding respect for the law.
Every year the American Bar Association chooses a different theme for the observation. This year’s choice is “The Fourteenth Amendment: Transforming Democracy.”
The Reconstruction Amendments
Along with the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, is one of the so-called Reconstruction Amendments.
- The Thirteenth Amendment freed the slaves
- The Fourteenth Amendment detailed the rights of the newly freed slaves.
- The Fifteenth Amendment prohibited federal. and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The Fourteenth Amendment
Comprising five sections and longer than any other amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment is the basis for much of the important civil rights legislation of later years.
Section 1 contains the most far-reaching clauses; these were crucial to the Civil Rights Movement:
- Citizenship Clause
- Equal Protection Clause
- Due Process Clause
Citizenship Clause: This clause granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States. The freed slaves were now considered citizens; however, Congress did not declare all Native Americans born in the United States citizens until 1924.
Equal Protection Clause: This prohibited the federal government or a state from denying anyone within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. Before the passage of this amendment, the Bill of Rights was interpreted as applying only to the federal government.
Due Process Clause: This clause states that no one can be denied “life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
Section 2 gave male citizens over the age of 21 the right to vote. This was modified in later years to eliminate discrimination based on gender as well as race.
Section 3 provided that no-one who has engaged in rebellion against the United States can hold an office. As a result, leaders of the Confederacy were not allowed to vote or hold federal office unless 2/3 of both houses of Congress voted in favor or allowing them to regain citizenship.
Section 4 stated that claims of debt to the Confederate States or to former slaveholders for the loss of their slaves would be considered illegal.
Section 5 gave Congress the authority to enforce the provisions of the amendment.
Impact on Many Areas of the Law
The passage of this amendment ensured that the rights described in the Bill of Rights would apply to the individual states as well as to the federal government. A state can offer a greater right, but it cannot limit the right without due cause.
The Fourteenth Amendment has had a profound effect on most areas of the law. In fact, its Equal Protection Clause is among the most frequently litigated clauses in the Constitution.
Many family law cases involve rights covered by the Fourteenth Amendment. These are just a few examples:
- freedom of personal choice when dealing with marriage and family issues;
- the right to make decisions about the care, custody, and nurture of one’s children;
- a father’s right to have a relationship with his children; and
- the right to be protected against domestic violence.
New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination specifies protected categories and prohibits discrimination and harassment based on any of them. Specifically named are race, religion, ancestry, gender, physical disability, mental disability, sexual orientation, marital status, and age.
The amendment explicitly prohibits states from violating an individual’s rights of due process and equal protection of the laws. It ensures that states, and not just the federal government, must protect the rights of all citizens accused of a crime.
The Fourteenth Amendment has played an important role in legislation from its inception to the present time.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): In this landmark case the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was constitutional provided the facilities were equal. This “separate but equal” opened the way for the Jim Crow South.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954): In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and, therefore, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Desegregation was ordered. It overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.
Roe v. Wade (1973): The Supreme Court affirmed the legal right of a woman’s right to have an abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Bush v. Gore (2000): This Supreme Court decision resolved the dispute surrounding the 2000 presidential election. It ruled that the recount violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because different standards of counting were used in different municipalities. The recount did not take place, and George W. Bush became President.
Obergefell v. Hodges (2015): In this landmark case, the Court ruled that same-sex couples are guaranteed the right to marry by the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Law Day Observances
No matter how your community observes Law Day, it is a good time to reflect on the importance of the rule of law in our society and to be thankful for the many liberties we enjoy as citizens of the United States—due in great part to the Fourteenth Amendment.
If your fourteenth-amendment rights have been threatened, you should contact an experienced New Jersey attorney. Aretsky Law Group, P.C., protects the rights of clients in these areas: divorce and family law, employment law, municipal-court cases, personal injury and medical malpractice, and domestic violence. Call Aretsky Law Group, P.C. at 800-537-4154 number or email Mr. Aretsky at Eric@aretskylawgroup.com for your initial consultation. You may also view our firm overview, attorney biographies and our areas of practice when you visit our website at www.aretskylawgroup.com.