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The 14th Amendment: Cornerstone of civil rights

Law Day 2017

The theme for Law Day 2017 – The 14th Amendment: Transforming American Democracy – provides the opportunity to explore the many ways that the Fourteenth Amendment has reshaped American law and society.

Through its citizenship, due process, and equal protection clauses, this transformative amendment advances the rights of all Americans. It also plays a pivotal role in extending the reach of the Bill of Rights to the states.

Ratified during Reconstruction a century and a half ago, the Fourteenth Amendment serves as the cornerstone of landmark civil rights legislation, the foundation for numerous federal court decisions protecting fundamental rights, and a source of inspiration for all those who advocate for equal justice under law.

ABA President Linda Klein has this message for Law Day 2017:

Linda KleinIn the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln promised “a new birth of freedom.” Just three years after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing former slaves citizenship and all its privileges.

The 2017 Law Day theme “The Fourteenth Amendment: Transforming American Democracy” commemorates the important contribution this historic constitutional change made to our understanding of what it means to be an American and how closely liberty is tied to equality and justice.

In a nation that had only recently abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment for the first time constitutionally defined United States citizenship. It specifically prohibited states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; it also required that states afford any person within their jurisdiction equal protection of the laws. The impact of the extension of these basic guarantees cannot be overstated.

In the century and a half that has elapsed since its ratification, the Fourteenth Amendment has continued to transform American law and society in several significant ways:

It provided the mechanism for the key guarantees of the Bill of Rights, including free speech, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to a trial by jury, to become enforceable against the states, and not just against the federal government;

Its due process clause provided the authority for court recognition of certain fundamental rights not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, such as the right to privacy; and

Its equal protection clause established the framework for challenging laws and state-sanctioned practices that create or perpetuate inequality.

Today the Fourteenth Amendment stands among the most often cited and most litigated of constitutional provisions. It has supported and inspired landmark civil rights legislation, including laws that bar discrimination in education, employment, and housing. Rarely does a Supreme Court term pass without a major ruling that has its roots in the Fourteenth Amendment, including recent decisions on such noteworthy topics as affirmative action and voting rights. The amendment’s section 4 on public debt has even been cited in debates over raising the federal debt ceiling.

As we mark Law Day on this, the eve of the Fourteenth Amendment’s 150th anniversary, let us reflect upon the pivotal role it has played in protecting and advancing the rights of all Americans.

Source: ABA Law Day information.

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