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Equal Protection Clause

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Background Information

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The Equal Protection Clause, part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause applies only to state governments, but the requirement of equal protection has been read to apply to the federal government as a component of Fifth Amendment due process.

More concretely, the Equal Protection Clause, along with the rest of the Fourteenth Amendment, marked a great shift in American constitutionalism. Before the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Bill of Rights protected individual rights only from invasion by the federal government. After the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted, the Constitution also protected rights from abridgment by state leaders and governments, even including some rights that arguably were not protected from abridgment by the federal government. In the wake of the Fourteenth Amendment, the states could not, among other things, deprive people of the equal protection of the laws. What exactly such a requirement means has been the subject of much debate, and the story of the Equal Protection Clause is the gradual explication of its meaning.

Text of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment

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. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.


The words inscribed above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court are: " Equal justice under law."

The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted in 1868, shortly after the Union victory in the American Civil War. After the Thirteenth Amendment, which was proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1865, had abolished slavery, many ex- Confederate states adopted Black Codes following the war. These laws severely restricted the rights of blacks to hold property, including chattels and real property and many forms of personal property; to form legally enforceable contracts or enter into agreements involving securities, or other negotiable or commercial paper. These codes also created harsher criminal penalties for blacks than for whites.

Congressman John Bingham of Ohio was the principal framer of the Equal Protection Clause.

Because of the inequality these Black Codes imposed, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1866. This Act provided that all those born in the United States were citizens of the United States (this provision was meant to overturn the Supreme Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford), and required that "citizens of every race and colour ... [have] full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens." Doubts about whether Congress could legitimately enact such a law under the then-existing Constitution led Congress to begin to draft and debate what would become the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The effort was led by the Radical Republicans of both houses of Congress, including John Bingham, Charles Sumner, and Thaddeus Stevens. The most important among these, however, was Bingham, a Congressman from Ohio, who drafted the language of the Equal Protection Clause.

The Southern states were opposed to the Civil Rights Act, but in 1865 Congress, exercising its power under Article I, section 5, clause 1 of the Constitution, to "be the Judge of the ... Qualifications of its own Members," had excluded Southerners from Congress, declaring that their states, having rebelled against the Union, could therefore not elect members to Congress. It was this fact—the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted by a " rump" Congress—that allowed the equal protection clause, which white Southerners almost uniformly hated, to be passed by Congress and proposed to the states. Its ratification by the former Confederate states was made a condition of their reacceptance into the Union.

The equal protection clause was added to deal with the lack of equal protection provided by law to all in the course of administering justice in the states who had black codes. Under black codes blacks could not sue, give evidence, be witnesses, received harsher degree of punishment, etc. Bingham stated that phrase “equal protection” under the Fourteenth Amendment means that “It confers upon Congress power to see to it that the protection given by the laws of the States shall be equal in respect to life and liberty and property to all persons.” The inclusion of the words equal protection along with the words life, liberty and property provided protection for all persons from arbitrary taking of life, imprisonment or confiscation of property. Bingham said in a speech from March 31, 1871 that "the words “equal protection of the laws” were more than a glittering generality", but "that they were to be enforced to the extent of securing all guarantees of life, liberty, and property as provided by the supreme law of the land, the Constitution of the United States." Thus it was Congress power to enforce laws guaranteed to all for the protection of life, liberty and property from arbitrary government action. The equal protection of the laws disable legislatures and judges from unequally administering those rights of justice the State guarantees to all men (everyone has a right to process of law before being put to death, property confiscated or imprisoned).

By its terms, the clause restrains only state governments. However, the Fifth Amendment's due process guarantee, beginning with Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), has been interpreted as imposing some of the same restrictions on the federal government: "Though the Fifth Amendment does not contain an equal protection clause, as does the Fourteenth Amendment which applies only to the States, the concepts of equal protection and due process are not mutually exclusive."

Originally, women were excluded from equal protection under the Bill of Rights. In 1971, in a U.S. Supreme court decision of Reed v. Reed, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was extended to women.

Reconstruction-era interpretation and the Plessy decision

The Court that decided Plessy

The first truly landmark equal protection decision by the Supreme Court was Strauder v. West Virginia (1880), soon after the end of Reconstruction. A black man convicted of murder by an all-white jury challenged a West Virginia statute excluding blacks from serving on juries. The Court asserted that the purpose of the Clause was

to assure to the colored race the enjoyment of all the civil rights that under the law are enjoyed by white persons, and to give to that race the protection of the general government, in that enjoyment, whenever it should be denied by the States.

Exclusion of blacks from juries, the Court concluded, was a denial of equal protection to black defendants, since the jury had been "drawn from a panel from which the State has expressly excluded every man of [the defendant's] race."

The next important postwar case was the Civil Rights Cases (1883), in which the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was at issue. The Act provided that all persons should have "full and equal enjoyment of ... inns, public conveyances on land or water, theatres, and other places of public amusement." In its opinion, the Court promulgated what has since become known as the " state action doctrine," which limits the guarantees of the equal protection clause only to acts done or otherwise "sanctioned in some way" by the state. Prohibiting blacks from attending plays or staying in inns was "simply a private wrong," provided, of course, that the state's law saw it as a wrong. Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented alone, saying, "I cannot resist the conclusion that the substance and spirit of the recent amendments of the Constitution have been sacrificed by a subtle and ingenious verbal criticism."

Harlan went on to argue that because (1) "public conveyances on land and water" use the public highways, and (2) innkeepers engage in what is "a quasi-public employment," and (3) "places of public amusement" are licensed under the laws of the states, excluding blacks from using these services was an act sanctioned by the state.

A few years later, Justice Stanley Matthews wrote the Court's opinion in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886). He said: "These provisions are universal in their application, to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction, without regard to any differences of race, of colour, or of nationality; and the equal protection of the laws is a pledge of the protection of equal laws." Thus, the Clause would not be limited to discrimination against African Americans, nor would it be limited to equal enforcement of existing laws.

In its most contentious post-war interpretation of the equal protection clause, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana Jim Crow law that required the segregation of blacks and whites on railroads and mandated separate railway cars for members of the two races. The Court, speaking through Justice Henry B. Brown, ruled that the equal protection clause had been intended to defend equality in civil rights, not equality in social arrangements. All that was therefore required of the law was reasonableness, and Louisiana's railway law amply met that requirement, being based on "the established usages, customs and traditions of the people."

Justice Harlan again dissented. "Every one knows," he wrote,

that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons .... [I]n view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is colour-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.

Such "arbitrary separation" by race, Harlan concluded, was "a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the Constitution."

Since Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Justice Harlan's dissent in Plessy has been vindicated as a matter of legal doctrine, and the clause has been interpreted as imposing a general restraint on the government's power to discriminate against people based on their membership in certain classes, including those based on race and sex (see below).

It was also in the post-Civil-War era that a ruling by the Supreme Court included summarizing headnotes written by a former president of Newburgh and New York Railway Company, John C. Bancroft. Bancroft, acting as court reporter indicated in the notes that corporations were "persons" while the actual court decision itself purposefully avoided specific statements regarding the equal protection clause as applied to corporations. However, the legal concept of corporate personhood predates the Fourteenth Amendment. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Clause was used to strike down numerous statutes applying to corporations. Since the New Deal, however, such invalidations have been rare.

Between Plessy and Brown

While the Plessy majority's interpretation of the clause stood until Brown, the holding of Brown was prefigured, to some extent, by several earlier cases.

The first of these was Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938). Lloyd Gaines was a black student at Lincoln University of Missouri, one of the historically black colleges in Missouri. He applied for admission to the law school at the all-white University of Missouri, since Lincoln did not have a law school, but was denied admission due solely to his race. The Supreme Court, applying the separate-but-equal principle of Plessy, held that a State offering a legal education to whites but not to blacks violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Smith v. Allwright (1944) and Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), though not dealing with education, indicated the Court's increased willingness to find racial discrimination illegal. Smith declared that the Democratic primary in Texas, in which voting was restricted to whites alone, was unconstitutional, partly on equal protection grounds. Shelley concerned a privately made contract that prohibited "people of the Negro or Mongolian race" from living on a particular piece of land. Seeming to go against the spirit, if not the exact letter, of The Civil Rights Cases, the Court found that, although a discriminatory private contract could not violate the Equal Protection Clause, the courts' enforcement of such a contract could: after all, the Supreme Court reasoned, courts were part of the state.

More important, however, were the companion cases Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, both decided in 1950. In McLaurin, the University of Oklahoma had admitted McLaurin, an African-American, but had restricted his activities there: he had to sit apart from the rest of the students in the classrooms and library, and could eat in the cafeteria only at a designated table. A unanimous Court, through Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, said that Oklahoma had deprived McLaurin of the equal protection of the laws:

There is a vast difference—a Constitutional difference—between restrictions imposed by the state which prohibit the intellectual commingling of students, and the refusal of individuals to commingle where the state presents no such bar.

The present situation, Vinson said, was the former.

In Sweatt, the Court considered the constitutionality of Texas's state system of law schools, which educated blacks and whites at separate institutions. The Court (again through Chief Justice Vinson, and again with no dissenters) invalidated the school system—not because it separated students, but rather because the separate facilities were not equal. They lacked "substantial equality in the educational opportunities" offered to their students.

All of these cases, including Brown, were litigated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It was Charles Hamilton Houston, a Harvard Law School graduate and a law professor at Howard University, who in the 1930s first began to challenge racial discrimination in the federal courts. Thurgood Marshall, a former student of Houston's and the future Solicitor General and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, joined him. Both men were extraordinarily skilled appellate advocates, but part of their shrewdness lay in their careful choice of which cases to litigate—of which situations would be the best legal proving grounds for their cause.

Brown and its consequences

When Earl Warren became Chief Justice in 1953, Brown had already come before the Court. While Vinson was still Chief Justice, there had been a preliminary vote on the case at a conference of all nine justices. At that time, the Court had split, with a majority of the justices voting that school segregation did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Warren, however, through persuasion and good-natured cajoling—he had been an extremely successful Republican politician before joining the Court—was able to convince all eight associate justices to join his opinion declaring school segregation unconstitutional. In that opinion, Warren wrote:

To separate [children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.... We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

The Court then set the case for re-argument on the question of what the solution would be. In Brown II, decided the next year, it was concluded that since the problems identified in the previous opinion were local, the solutions needed to be so as well. Thus the court devolved authority to local school boards and to the trial courts that had originally heard the cases. (Brown was actually a consolidation of four different cases from four different states.) The trial courts and localities were told to desegregate with "all deliberate speed".

Partly because of that enigmatic phrase, but mostly because of self-declared " massive resistance" in the South to the desegregation decision, integration did not begin in any significant way until the mid-1960s and then only to a small degree. In fact, much of the integration in the 1960s happened in response not to Brown but to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Supreme Court intervened a handful of times in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but its next major desegregation decision was Green v. School Board of New Kent County (1968), in which Justice William J. Brennan, writing for a unanimous Court, rejected a "freedom-of-choice" school plan as inadequate. This was a significant act; freedom-of-choice plans had been very common responses to Brown. Under these plans, parents could choose to send their children to either a formerly white or a formerly black school. Whites almost never opted to attend black-identified schools, however, and blacks rarely attended white-identified schools.

In response to Green, many Southern districts replaced freedom-of-choice with geographically based schooling plans; but because residential segregation was widespread, this had little effect, either. In 1971, the Court in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved busing as a remedy to segregation; three years later, though, in the case of Milliken v. Bradley (1974), it set aside a lower court order that had required the busing of students between districts, instead of merely within a district. Milliken basically ended the Supreme Court's major involvement in school desegregation; however, up through the 1990s many federal trial courts remained involved in school desegregation cases, many of which had begun in the 1950s and 1960s. American public school systems, especially in large metropolitan areas, to a large extent are still de facto segregated. Whether due to Brown, to Congressional action or to societal change, the percentage of black students attending school districts a majority of whose students were black decreased somewhat until the early 1980s, at which point that percentage began to increase. By the late 1990s, the percentage of black students in mostly minority school districts had returned to about what it was in the late 1960s.

There are, very broadly speaking, two ways to explain America's marked lack of success in school integration in the five decades since Brown. One way, sometimes voiced by political conservatives, argues that Brown's relative failure is due to the inherent limitations of law and the courts, which simply do not have the institutional competence to supervise the desegregation of whole school districts. Moreover, the federal government's, and especially the Supreme Court's, hubris actually provoked the resistance of locals, since education in the United States is traditionally a matter for local control. The other way to explain what has happened since Brown often has political liberals as its proponents; it argues that the Court's decree in Brown II was insufficiently rigorous to force segregated localities into action, and that real success began only after the other two branches of the federal government got involved—the Executive Branch (under Kennedy and Johnson) by encouraging the Department of Justice to pursue judicial remedies against resistant school districts, and Congress by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Liberals also point out that Richard Nixon's " southern strategy" was premised on a tacit support of segregation that continued when Nixon came to office, so that after 1968 the Executive was no longer behind the Court's constitutional commitments. Moreover, some, such as Erwin Chemerinsky, argue that courts may have had sufficient ability to ensure widespread integration but simply were not allowed enough time to perform this role, since Milliken v. Bradley, in 1974—barely a decade since desegregation began in earnest in the South—severely curtained the thoroughgoing methods (e.g. busing) which might have achieved the goal of desegregation, particularly in the South, and even more particularly in the state of Georgia.

Carolene Products and the various levels of Equal Protection scrutiny

Harlan Stone, author of the Carolene Products opinion

Despite the undoubted importance of Brown, much of modern equal protection jurisprudence stems from footnote four of United States v. Carolene Products Co. (1938), a Commerce Clause and substantive due process case. In 1937, the Court (in what was called the " switch in time that saved nine") had loosened its rules for deciding whether Congress could regulate certain commercial activities. In discussing the new presumption of constitutionality that the Court would apply to economic legislation, Justice Harlan Stone wrote:

[P]rejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry.

Thus were born the "more searching" levels of scrutiny—"strict" and "intermediate"—with which the Court would examine legislation directed at racial minorities and women respectively. Although the Court first articulated a "strict scrutiny" standard for laws based on race-based distinctions in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944), the Court did not apply strict scrutiny, by that name, until the 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia. Intermediate scrutiny did not command the approbation of a majority of the Court until the 1976 case of Craig v. Boren.

The Supreme Court has defined these levels of scrutiny in the following way:

  • Strict scrutiny (if the law categorizes on the basis of race or national origin or infringes a fundamental right): the law is unconstitutional unless it is "narrowly tailored" to serve a "compelling" government interest. In addition, there cannot be a "less restrictive" alternative available to achieve that compelling interest.
  • Intermediate scrutiny (if the law categorizes on the basis of sex): the law is unconstitutional unless it is "substantially related" to an "important" government interest.
  • Rational-basis test (if the law categorizes on some other basis): the law is constitutional so long as it is "reasonably related" to a "legitimate" government interest.

Although in 1985 the court in City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Centre, Inc. held that the treatment of developmentally disabled persons were deemed to be subject to a "rational basis" test, in invalidating seemingly rational zoning laws and land use restrictions, many assert that the court introduced an "enhanced" rational basis test that required the state to show more than a facially valid law and instead to balance the community's needs against the needs of the disabled.

There is, arguably, a fourth level of scrutiny for equal protection cases. In United States v. Virginia Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the Court, eschewed the traditional language of intermediate scrutiny for sex-based discrimination and instead borrowed from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion for the Court in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan in demanding that litigants articulate an "exceedingly persuasive" argument to justify this kind of discrimination. Whether this was simply a restatement of the doctrine of intermediate scrutiny or whether it created a new level of scrutiny between the intermediate and strict standards is unclear.

Discriminatory intent and disparate impact?

After Brown, questions still remained about the scope of the equal protection clause. Does the Clause outlaw public policies that cause racial disparities—for example, a public school examination that has not been established for racist reasons, but that more white students than black students pass? Or, on the other hand, does it prohibit only intentional bigotry?

The Supreme Court has answered that the equal protection clause itself does not forbid policies which lead to racial disparities, but that Congress may by legislation prohibit such policies.

Take, for example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids job discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, sex or religion. Title VII applies both to private and to public employers. (While Congress applied Title VII to private employers using its interstate commerce power, it applied Title VII to public employers under its power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. Title VII's standards for public and private employers are the same.) The Supreme Court ruled in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971) that (1) if an employer's policy has disparate racial consequences, and (2) if the employer cannot give a reasonable justification for such a policy on grounds of "business necessity," then the employer's policy violates Title VII. In the years since Griggs, courts have defined "business necessity" as requiring the employer to prove that whatever is causing the racial disparity—be it a test, an educational requirement, or another hiring practice—has a demonstrable factual relationship to making the company more profitable.

In situations involving only the equal protection clause, however, the focus of the court is on discriminatory intent. Such intent was manifested in the seminal case of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Corp. (1977). In that case, the plaintiff, a housing developer, sued a city in the suburbs of Chicago that had refused to re-zone a plot of land on which the plaintiff intended to build low-income, racially integrated housing. On the face, there was no clear evidence of racially discriminatory intent on the part of Arlington Heights's planning commission. The result was racially disparate, however, since the refusal supposedly prevented mostly African-Americans and Hispanics from moving in. Justice Lewis Powell, writing for the Court, stated, "Proof of racially discriminatory intent or purpose is required to show a violation of the Equal Protection Clause." Disparate impact merely has an evidentiary value; absent a "stark" pattern, "impact is not determinative." (See also Washington v. Davis (1976).)

Defenders of the rule in Arlington Heights and Washington v. Davis argue that the equal protection clause was not designed to guarantee equal outcomes, but rather equal opportunities and that therefore one should not be concerned with trying to fix every racially disparate effect. One should worry only about intentional discrimination. Others point out that the courts are merely enforcing the equal protection clause, and that if the legislature wants to correct racially disparate effects, it may do so through further legislation.

Critics contend, on the other hand, that the rule would excuse many instances of racial discrimination, since it is possible for a discriminating party to hide its true intention. To uncover the motives of the parties, the court should also consider whether the measure at issue would have disparate impact, critics argue. This debate, though, is currently entirely academic, since the Supreme Court has not changed its basic approach as outlined in Arlington Heights.

For a prime example of how this rule limits the Court's powers under the Equal Protection Clause see McClesky v. Kemp. In that case a black man was convicted of murdering a white police officer and sentenced to death in the state of Georgia. A study found that killers of whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than were killers of blacks. The Court found that the defense had failed to prove that such data demonstrated the requisite discriminatory intent by the Georgia legislature and executive branch. The study showed that white defendants were much less likely to receive the death penalty than blacks, all other factors being equal, and white victims more often resulted in higher death penalties than black victims.

Affirmative action

Affirmative action is the consideration of race, gender, and other factors in employment decisions or other application processes, historically often with the intent of correcting past injustices. In that application of affirmative action, individuals who belong to the group under consideration, are preferred over those who do not belong to the group. In hypothetical examples the preference often takes the form of preferring the targeted group to others if the applicants are otherwise comparable. In the U.S. the form of the preferential scheme is usually achieved through quotas, such as how federal contracts are allocated, or by setting different standards for different racial groups, as is done at many universities.

Although there were forms of what is now called affirmative action during the Reconstruction (most of which were implemented by the same persons who framed the Fourteenth Amendment) the modern history of affirmative action began with the Kennedy administration and started to flourish during the Johnson administration, with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and two executive orders. These policies directed agencies of the federal government to employ a proportionate number of minorities whenever possible.

Several important affirmative action cases to reach the Supreme Court have concerned government contractors—for instance, Adarand Constructors v. Peña (1995) and City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. (1989). But the most famous cases have dealt with affirmative action as practiced by public universities: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), and two companion cases decided by the Supreme Court in 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger.

In Bakke, the Court held that racial quotas are unconstitutional, but that educational institutions could legally use race as one of many factors to consider in their admissions process. In Grutter and Gratz, the Court upheld both Bakke as a precedent and the admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School. In dicta, however, Justice O'Connor, writing for the Court, said she expected that in 25 years, racial preferences would no longer be necessary. In Gratz, the Court invalidated Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy, on the grounds that unlike the law school's policy, which treated race as one of many factors in an admissions process that looked to the individual applicant, the undergraduate policy used a point system that was excessively mechanistic.

In these affirmative action cases, the Supreme Court has employed, or has said it employed, strict scrutiny, since the affirmative action policies challenged by the plaintiffs categorized by race. The policy in Grutter, and a Harvard College admissions policy praised by Justice Powell's opinion in Bakke, passed muster because the Court deemed that they were narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest in diversity. On one side, critics have argued—including Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent to Grutter—that the scrutiny the Court has applied in some cases is much less searching than true strict scrutiny, and that the Court has acted not as a principled legal institution but as a biased political one. On the other side, it is argued that the purpose of the Equal Protection Clause is to prevent the socio-political subordination of some groups by others, not to prevent classification; since this is so, non-invidious classifications, such as those used by affirmative action programs, should not be subjected to heightened scrutiny.

Voting rights

Although the Supreme Court had ruled in Nixon v. Herndon (1927) that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited denial of the vote based on race, the first modern application of the Equal Protection Clause to voting law came in Baker v. Carr (1962), where the Court ruled that the districts that sent representatives to the Tennessee state legislature were so malapportioned (with some legislators representing ten times the number of residents as others) that they violated the Equal Protection Clause. This ruling was extended two years later in Reynolds v. Sims (1964), in which a "one man, one vote" standard was laid down: in both houses of state legislatures, each resident had to be given equal weight in representation.

It may seem counterintuitive that the equal protection clause should provide for equal voting rights; after all, it would seem to make the Fifteenth Amendment and the Nineteenth Amendment redundant. Indeed, it was on this argument, as well as on the legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment, that Justice John M. Harlan (the grandson of the earlier Justice Harlan) relied in his dissent from Reynolds. Harlan quoted the congressional debates of 1866 to show that the framers did not intend for the Equal Protection Clause to extend to voting rights, and in reference to the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, he said:

If constitutional amendment was the only means by which all men and, later, women, could be guaranteed the right to vote at all, even for federal officers, how can it be that the far less obvious right to a particular kind of apportionment of state legislatures ... can be conferred by judicial construction of the Fourteenth Amendment? [Emphasis in the original.]

However, Reynolds and Baker do not lack a rationale, if seen from another perspective. The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that voting is a "fundamental right" on the same plane as marriage ( Loving v. Virginia), privacy ( Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)), or interstate travel (Shapiro v. Thompson (1969)). For any abridgment of those rights to be constitutional, the Court has held, the legislation must pass strict scrutiny. Thus, on this account, equal protection jurisprudence may be appropriately applied to voting rights.

A recent use of equal protection doctrine came in Bush v. Gore (2000). At issue was the controversial recount in Florida in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. There, the Supreme Court decided that the different standards of counting ballots across Florida violated the equal protection clause. It was not this decision that proved especially controversial among commentators, and indeed, the proposition gained seven out of nine votes; Justices Souter and Breyer joined the majority of five—but only, it should be emphasized, for the finding that there was an Equal Protection violation. What was controversial was, first, the remedy upon which the majority agreed—that even though there was an equal protection violation, there was not enough time for a recount—and second, the suggestion that the equal protection violation was true only on the facts of Bush v. Gore; commentators suggested that this meant that the Court did not wish its decision to have any precedential effect, and that this was evidence of its unprincipled decision-making.

Proportional representation

Some dissents have been considered an endorsement of the proportional representation voting system through the clause, such as in Mobile v. Bolden. Gaffney v. Cummings, 412 U.S. 735 (1973) held political fairness principles were not a violation of the clause, stating "rough proportional representation...was found to be a legitimate state goal". United Jewish Organizations v. Carey, 430 U. S. 144 (1977) in its opinion determined the system is not a right denied by the constitution.

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