Equal Protection

Equal Protection

Equal Protection

Equal Protection


The 14th Amendment, added in 1868, guaranteed equal protection. At that moment our nation began an odyssey into uncharted legal and philosophical waters which continues to confront the Supreme Court. The issue of equal protection has sparked some of the Court's most important, memorable, volatile, and fascinating cases. In this volume, students examine how the Court has responded to the profoundly complicated subjects of race and racial integration, affirmative action, race and education, and sex discrimination.


U nder the Fourteenth Amendment, no state may "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." With that statement, added to the U.S. Constitution in 1868, the United States began an odyssey into uncharted legal and philosophical waters that is still in progress. It has been a very difficult journey with many detours and dangerous ports of call along the way. Yet it has been a very necessary journey for a nation that began its history with the idea, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal."

Unlike in other areas of constitutional interpretation, the Supreme Court has struggled to define political equality with little guidance from political philosophers. While the Court could turn to John Locke's writings when discussing religious tolerance or to the ideas of John Stuart Mill when discussing the right of free speech, political philosophers were not helpful when it came time to put the ideal of political equality into practice. That is because, in theory, political equality seems so simple: everyone should be treated equally under the law. In actual practice, this ideal has proven to be anything but simple.

When the Supreme Court justices began to try to enforce the concept of political equality, they found that almost every law treats some people differently from other people. Taxes are higher for the rich than the poor, criminal laws put some people in jail while others go free, and election laws allow only some members of the population to vote. Which of these distinctions are acceptable, and which violate the principle of political equality?

Another difficult issue was slavery. At the time Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, stating that "all men are created equal," he owned slaves. How can all people be equal if some are free and others are . . .

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