Study Guide

Equal Protection - FAQ

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Does the Constitution guarantee equality for all people?

Not exactly. The closest thing to this sort of guarantee is found in the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that says that the states shall not "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Doesn't the Constitution say that "all men are created equal?"

No. This phrase is found in the Declaration of Independence and that document has no real legal power. It was written to declare and explain our separation from Great Britain. And while it may offer a set of ideals that we as a nation are committed to, it does not carry the sort of legal weight held by legislative statutes or judicial precedents.

What exactly does the equal protection clause guarantee?

Most basically it grants to the federal government the authority to ensure that the states do not apply their laws or policies in a discriminatory manner. The Fourteenth Amendment does not empower the federal government to intervene in private matters; that is, it cannot prevent certain types of private discrimination.

Does this mean that private businesses and clubs can discriminate?

To a certain extent. The courts have held that some private discriminatory acts are beyond the control of the federal government under the Fourteenth Amendment. But as soon as the states become a party to this discrimination the federal government can intervene. For example, if a private organization tries to enforce its discriminatory policies in the state courts, the state courts become accomplices, in effect, and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment grants Congress the power to "enforce" this amendment "by appropriate legislation." Some have argued that this confers on Congress a broad authority to advance the objectives of the Fourteenth Amendment. But the Court has tended to interpret this clause narrowly; as recently as 2000, the Court held that Section 5 does not give Congress the power to restrain private discrimination. On the other hand, Congress has used its powers under the commerce clause to bar discrimination in private businesses with some connection to interstate commerce.

Why was the Fourteenth Amendment added to the Constitution?

The Fourteenth Amendment was proposed shortly after the Civil War by northerners who realized that southern states were reducing the recently freed slaves to second class citizens. For example, freedmen were shut out of the political process and reduced to a slavery-like status by local vagrancy laws. To redress these injustices, the Fourteenth Amendment was proposed to ensure that the rights of freedmen were protected.

Does this mean that only African Americans are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment?

No. While protecting the freedmen from southern violations was clearly the primary intent of the Fourteenth Amendment, when Congress drafted the amendment it employed more inclusive language and extended constitutional protection to "any person." As a result, the Fourteenth Amendment has been interpreted to convey a tiered governmental responsibility. While all persons are provided a fundamental guarantee of equal treatment under the law, the Court has held that certain persons are entitled to more rigorous protection from the courts.

How do the courts apply their tiered-interpretation of the equal protection clause?

The courts use different tests to evaluate laws employing different sorts of classifications. "Race" has been labeled a "suspect" class and therefore the courts apply "strict scrutiny" to all laws that incorporate some sort of racial classification. Laws that employ different sorts of classifications, such as age and income level, are evaluated by a less rigorous test. Using the "Lindsley test," the courts ask simply if the classification is reasonable. In recent decades, the Supreme Court also introduced an "intermediate" standard for evaluating laws that incorporate gender classification. If a state passes a law that treats men and women differently, the courts demand proof that the law pursues an "important government objective" and that the use of a gender classification is "substantially related" to the achievement of that objective.

What court case established this intermediate standard of review for gender discrimination?

Craig v. Boren. In 1976, an eighteen-year old boy, Curtis Craig, challenged the constitutionality of an Oklahoma law that allowed girls to drink 3.2% beer at age eighteen and boys at age 21. The Supreme Court ruled in Craig's favor and stated that "classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives."blank" rel="nofollow">Grutter v. Bollinger.

How did the Court rule in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke?

In this 1978 case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that while admissions quotas could not be used by colleges to increase minority enrollment, race could be used as one factor among many in evaluating student applications. Allan Bakke brought the suit after being denied admission to the University of California, Davis Medical School and discovering that minority applicants with lower grades and test scores had been admitted to fill sixteen admissions slots (out of a total class of 100) that had been set aside for minority applicants.

How did the Court rule in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger?

In these 2003 cases involving the University of Michigan's undergraduate and law school admissions policies, respectively, the United States Supreme Court served notice that affirmative action programs employing racial classifications would be subject to close scrutiny by the Court. If racial classifications were applied too heavily, as was the case with Michigan's undergraduate admissions policies, according to the Court, they would be struck down. If race was used more carefully along with many other factors in order to achieve diversity, as was the case with the law school admissions program, the Court would accept it. But, added Justice Sandra O'Connor, the Court's support for even these more carefully structured programs was limited. Within a generation, she suggested, the use of these sorts of racial classifications would not be acceptable to the Court.

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