Today we celebrate Law Day. The American Bar Association first proposed the idea for a nationally recognized Law Day 60 years ago. On May 1, 1958, President Eisenhower established Law Day to celebrate the role of law in the United States. It is an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the creation of law has developed our country and the freedoms we enjoy. This year’s topic is the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment is simply written, but in its plain language, there is a significant amount of constitutional heft, and it has become the workhorse of Constitutional law since its passage in 1868.
On its face, the 14th Amendment confers citizenship to those born or naturalized in the United States, and reinforces the requirement of “due process” of law and promises “equal protection.” However, one of the most fascinating and wide-ranging impacts of the law is based on a single word: “State.” The 14th Amendment commands that “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property” without due process. The 14th Amendment also requires that no State “deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of laws.” By operation of the 14th amendment, the rights set forth in the Bill of Rights (the 1st through 10th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution) have, over time, become applicable to actions by the States.
Although then-President Andrew Johnson called the 14th Amendment “purely ministerial,” it became a vehicle of incredible, wide-ranging change. Women’s right to vote was found to be rooted in the 14th Amendment. The right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures by local and State police was recognized through the application of the 14th Amendment. A defendant’s right to a public defender in State and local prosecutions was granted by the application of the 6th Amendment upon the State, again, by operation of the 14th Amendment. The right to privacy, the right to marry someone of the race or sex that you choose, the right to a school hearing before getting expelled, among others, all are based in the application of the 14th Amendment. Brown v. Board of Education, which compelled the desegregation of schools and determined that “separate but equal” was by no means equal, was grounded in the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment, although not as commonly discussed in non-legal circles as other amendments, significantly impacts each of us every day.