Criminal Constitution: The Fourteenth Amendment

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of our Criminal Constitution Series! We’re tackling the Fourteenth Amendment, so keep reading to learn about one of the most inclusive amendments for criminal law!

Equal Protection Under the Law

The overarching theme of the Fourteenth Amendment is equality. You might be thinking, “wasn’t that the theme of almost every other amendment in this series?” and you’d be right! Equality and the right to fairness is the general idea of most of the laws we cover.

However, the Fourteenth Amendment stands apart from the rest because of one phrase: “equal protection under the law.” This represents the idea that all people deserve equal legal protection regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexuality.

This amendment also specifically acknowledges and defines citizenship as a point of unity. Citizenship in this context is the key that unlocks the door to equality and freedom. Of course, since its ratification, there have been countless other laws and amendments that have extended certain rights to noncitizens, in addition to an ongoing push for more protections for immigrants and asylees.

That is a topic for another day, but the Fourteenth Amendment walked so they could run. Many of the ideas of security and freedom we have surrounding citizenship come from the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s also a law that has played a significant role in our advancement as a society. Let’s take a closer look.

Life, Liberty, and Property

You might recall “life, liberty, and property” from the preamble to the Constitution. These three words represent the rights and privileges of citizenship that no one can take away without due process of the law. This means that unless someone has broken the law or violated the rights of another citizen, their rights cannot be legally taken away.

One of the key phrases here is due process. This is a reference to the Fifth Amendment, which establishes the foundation for due process of law. Essentially, this means that should a person be accused of a crime, they are entitled to a fair investigation and trial where their voice can be heard, and a legal representative can fight on their behalf.

Tying this idea back into the Fourteenth Amendment, no citizen can have the right to life, liberty, and property revoked without due process (a court, trial, and investigation).

Representation

Another right of an American citizen is representation in government. This does not always directly influence a criminal case, but it can significantly impact the criminal justice system as a whole. This amendment establishes the number of representatives for each state, qualifications for higher office, public debt, and the Supreme Court’s power to enforce these rules.

Whether you like them or not, politicians do have a collective power to change the course of our nation. The operative word here is collective. While it may feel like the president, congress, and senate have control over our lives, our political system is set up in a way that limits the power of any branch of government and establishes a system of checks and balances.

In simpler terms, representatives in government have individual and collective power to make decisions, but there are few choices they can make without approval from their counterparts.

Local elections, in particular, have a more significant impact on how things are run in your community. For example, governors create and enforce laws while state representatives advocate for your interests in congress and the senate.

It’s usually these officials who decide how convicted felons will be allowed to participate in society. Each state has its laws regarding the felon vote and other restrictions on personal freedom. The Fourteenth Amendment allows the government to operate this way while also ensuring its citizens are protected.

Some cases, however, require a little more effort to ensure the safety of our country’s citizens.

Making History

Through the years, there have been few cases that have changed our country more than the following:

  • Brown v. Board of Education
  • Roe v. Wade
  • Obergefell v. Hodges

Each of these cases utilized the power of the Fourteenth Amendment to advocate for people who were discriminated against for their race, gender, and reproductive rights.

Brown v. Board of Education was the Supreme Court case that opened the doors to desegregation. At the time, schools in the United States were segregated – white children attended school separately from black and African American children.

In most cases, white schools were more affluent and had a better education. This practice was a part of the Jim Crow era that was marked by enforced racism and extreme discrimination – discrimination that went against the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled to desegregate schools so children of any race could partake in equal education and enrichment.

Roe v. Wade, which remains one of the most controversial cases in American history, granted women medical autonomy and the freedom to make reproductive choices. Most people only think of Roe v. Wade regarding abortion, but this case is much more than that.

This case granted women the liberty to choose, which is a right guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment. Many people are still arguing over the morality of abortion and pushing for the abolishment of Roe v. Wade, but they miss the bigger picture.

Before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the case, women’s health was left to their husbands. Reproductive health, birth control, and patient confidentiality were nonexistent. Now, women are free to make their own choices and advocate for themselves medically.

Obergefell v. Hodges shifted the tides in favor of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court decided that state-wide bans on gay marriage were a direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Any citizen, regardless of sexuality, should have the freedom to marry.

Takeaway

The Fourteenth Amendment has been a powerful tool in granting freedom to all people. It has been used to advocate for equal education, medical freedom, and the right to marry the person you love regardless of gender.

Many of the cases that have been based on the Fourteenth Amendment have come under fire through the years, but the amendment itself remains strong.

Thank you for reading our Criminal Constitution Series! Want more? Read our blog, the Atticus Files!

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