Our Fourteenth Amendment: A Snapshot

Guest Column

Lt. Col. Tyesha Smith, Fort Meade Staff Judge Advocate

Hello, Team Meade!

Undoubtedly, many of us are familiar with amendments to the U.S. Constitution such as the First Amendment right to free speech, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

But many may be unfamiliar with the most cited and most litigated amendment — the Fourteenth Amendment.

This year’s theme for Law Day —a day recognized annually on May 1 to celebrate the rule of law — is: “The Fourteenth Amendment: Transforming American Democracy.”

Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was originally meant to ensure and protect the rights of slaves. However, since its ratification, the Fourteenth Amendment has greatly expanded constitutional protections to all people.

The Fourteenth Amendment will soon celebrate its 150th anniversary, so it is only fitting that we recognize some of its key provisions that have greatly shaped our democracy.

Citizenship: Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

In Dred Scott v. Sanford, the Supreme Court held that blacks were not citizens. Consequently, they could not claim any of the rights and privileges afforded under the Constitution.

This provision of the Fourteenth Amendment expressly rejects the Supreme Court’s holding in Dred Scott and guarantees the right of citizenship to those born or naturalized in the United States.

Equal Protection: The amendment further provides that “No State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protections of the laws.”

It is this provision of the Fourteenth Amendment that provides the basis for most civil rights litigation. Under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, state laws that classify based on race, national origin, gender, religion or other status are strictly scrutinized by courts.

Brown v. Board of Education is, perhaps, one of the most famous cases in which the Supreme Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment precluded racial segregation in public schools.

Due Process: In addition to citizenship and equal protection, the amendment also provides that “No State shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

This provision protects individuals from “arbitrary state legislation, affecting life, liberty, and property …”

Just recently, the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges found that the due process clause and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required states to recognize lawful same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The above is just a snapshot of several important provisions contained in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated that “Law and Order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose, they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

The 14th Amendment continues to remain a conduit for social progress in our democracy.

We, as service members and government civilians, recognize our sworn duty to uphold democracy and its enduring tenets.

May we always be mindful of our commitment to be ready and resolved to carry on that service to our nation under the law.

Team Meade!

Editor’s note: Information for this column came from the American Bar Association site.

Facebook Comments