The Fourteenth Amendment:
The Importance of Your “Equal Protection” and “Due Process” Rights
Although the United States Constitution was drafted with the understanding that all citizens were to be treated equally, our nation’s collective understanding of what that means has grown dramatically over the past two centuries. One of the most important constitutional developments in this area was the passing of the 14th Amendment three years after the Civil War ended, in 1858.
Not only did the 14th Amendment state that anyone born in the United States was a citizen, it established two principles which are now part of the bedrock of our American civil rights: the concept that every citizen enjoys equal protection under the law, and that no citizen shall be deprived of their life, liberty or property without due process of law. Many civil rights lawsuits are based on these two principles.
“Equal protection under the law”
This phrase stands for the proposition that the law, and therefore the government, must treat everyone the same. In a series of well-known cases, the United States Supreme Court has used this phrase to enact the laws against discrimination which we are familiar with today. For instance, Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial discrimination through segregation unconstitutional, was based on the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court found that segregation, despite being described as “separate but equal,” in fact subjected people to unequal treatment, and thus the policy violated the Equal Protection clause.
Today, the 14th Amendment is used to bring claims that a government agency or employee is discriminating on the basis of race, gender, age, religion, or ethnicity. However, it is important to keep in mind the limits of the 14th Amendment, which only prohibits discrimination by the government. In other words, it does not apply to the actions of private individuals. While other laws may make it illegal for private persons and companies to discriminate, the 14th Amendment only limits the activity of the government itself.
One of the most common areas in which equal protection abuses happen is when you are employed by the government, or incarcerated. Claims for violation of the equal protection clause have included:
When women were being systematically denied advancement opportunities by a government agency;
When a city began a surveillance program that specifically targeted people of the muslim faith; and
When African Americans were being harassed by municipal police officers.
The right of “due process” means that the government may not limit your life, liberty, or property rights without giving you some type of hearing or opportunity to respond. “Due process” is not the right to a specific outcome, however - all the 14th Amendment guarantees is that you must receive some type of legal “process” before your rights are limited. Because the right to “liberty” is most commonly at issue in a criminal proceeding, when the threat of jail time is always present, it is easy to forget that this is also an important right in the civil context, as well.
You may have a claim against the government for a violation of your due process may arise in the following situations:
When a government employee is fired without cause, or without following the written employment procedures;
When a government agency or employee official makes a defamatory statement about a person;
When a prisoner is subjected to punishment in prison, such as losing privileges or being placed in solitary confinement, without the prison officials following the established procedures;
When a person is being incarcerated while awaiting trial, the 14th Amendment requires that he be provided with adequate medical care. Pretrial detainees “are entitled to at least as much protection as convicted prisoners”;
When a person is wrongly labeled a sex offender by the government, although they have not been convicted of a sexual offense; and
When a prisoner is killed by the actions of the prison officials, the death may violate the Due Process clause.
If you or someone you know has been injured by any government action without giving you the opportunity to respond or be heard, or by violating your right to be treated equally under the law, please contact the Mizner Law Firm immediately at 815-454-3889 or firstname.lastname@example.org to see how we may be able to assist you.