Con Law Commentary

Fourteenth Amendment

“Some amendments, dealing with narrow, immediate concerns, can be thought of as statutes writ large; altering one aspect of national life, they leave the larger structure intact. Others are broad statements of principle, giving constitutional form to the resolution of national crises, and permanently altering American nationality. The Fourteenth Amendment was a measure of this kind. In language that transcended race and region, it challenged legal discrimination throughout the nation and changed and broadened the meaning of freedom for all Americans.” (Eric Foner, Reconstruction, 258)

“…it is abundantly clear that Republicans wished to give constitutional sanction to states’ obligation to respect such key provisions as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, trial by impartial jury, and protection against cruel and unusual punishment and unreasonable search and seizure. The Freedmen’s Bureau had already taken steps to protect these rights, and the Amendment was deemed necessary, in part, precisely because every one of them was being systematically violated in the South in 1866.” (Foner, 258f.)

“The Fourteenth Amendment can only be understood as a whole, for while respecting federalism, it intervened directly in Southern politics, seeking to conjure into being a new political leadership that would respect the principle of equality before the law.” (Foner, 259)

“To permit a State to employ the phrase ‘within its jurisdiction’ in order to identify subclasses of persons whom it would define as beyond its jurisdiction, thereby relieving itself of the obligation to assure that its laws are designed and applied equally to those persons, would undermine the principal purpose for which the Equal Protection Clause was incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Equal Protection Clause was intended to work nothing less than the abolition of all caste-based and invidious class-based legislation.” (William Brennan, Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202, 213 (1982))

“Use of the phrase ‘within its jurisdiction’ thus does not detract from, but rather confirms, the understanding that the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment extends to anyone, citizen or stranger, who is subject to the laws of a State, and reaches into every corner of a State’s territory.” (Ibid., 215)