Concept of Equal Protection Term Paper

Pages: 10 (4130 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 12  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: American History

Equal Protection

The Supreme Court has played a pivotal role in race relations in the United States. It began by supporting the institution of slavery, going so far as to invalidate an act of Congress that intended to limit the spread of slavery in the United States. The Court's support of racial oppression did not end with the end of slavery. On the contrary, even after the conclusion of the Civil War, when the laws clearly supported the equality of the races, the Supreme Court's decisions did not always support equal protection. However, by the time of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the Court had begun to take an activist role in civil rights, which may be the only reason that there have been any meaningful advances in civil rights and race relations.

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In Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856), the Court was asked to adjudicate a dispute between a slave and a person claiming to be his owner. The subject matter of the dispute was whether a slave, taken into free territory, became a free man. The larger overall question was the validity of the Missouri Compromise, and whether Congress had the power to prohibit slavery in any area of the United States. The Court determined that Congress did not have that power, and bolstered its argument by looking to the historical intent and powers of the Articles of Confederation, though those had clearly and unequivocally been superceded by the Constitution, and held that Congress' right to enact new laws was restricted to property held in common by the states at the time of the Articles of Confederation, rather than any after-acquired territory or property. (60 U.S. 393, 436).

Term Paper on Concept of Equal Protection Assignment

While the Court recognized Congress ability to acquire territory, it did not recognize its ability to govern that territory. Therefore, it determined that the provisions of the Missouri Compromise were void, so that Dred Scott and his family remained enslaved, despite the time that they spent in free territory or a free state. Therefore, the Court interpreted that equal protection applied to the slaveholder, so that he could not be deprived of his property (the slaves), merely by taking them into a free territory. Furthermore, there was no recognition of Dred Scott as a human being, with entitlement to any rights, much less equal protection of the law; he was regarded as nothing more than chattel. This decision was clearly a stretch, meant to defeat Congress' attempts to limit the spread of slavery in the United States, and was one of the precipitating events leading up to the Civil War.

Though the broader issue of the Civil War was the argument between state and federal rights, the practical issue at the heart of that war was slavery, and the economic tug-of-war between free states and slave states. Moral revulsion at the practice of slavery came much later for many of the people in free states; their free status was the result of economic power that did not depend on the availability of a cheap labor force. While Lincoln abolished slavery in the Confederate States during the war, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the conclusion of the war saw the abolition of slavery throughout the United States and the passage of three significant amendments to the United States Constitution. The first of those amendments, the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawed race-based slavery in the United States. It stated that: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." (U.S. Const. amend. XIII). The Fourteenth Amendment went further than that, by proclaiming that, "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." (U.S. Const. amend. XIV). Therefore, Congress clearly intended, at that time to grant equal protection to people regardless of race. Finally, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote, by stating that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." (U.S. Const. amend. XV). In addition, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, 18 Stat. Part III, p. 335 (Act of Mar. 1, 1875), made it clear that equal protection extended to areas outside of the law and entitled "all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States...to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement." (18 Stat. Part III, p. 335, Chapter 114 1). Furthermore, the Act provided for penalties for those violating the law, including imprisonment and fines. (18 Stat. Part III, p. 335, Chapter 114 2). Taken together, the Act and the Civil War amendments make it clear that Congress intended for all Americans (at least the males) to enjoy the equal protection of the laws. However, once Reconstruction ended, the Court failed to give teeth to these powerful protections.

The first challenges to the Civil War amendments appeared relatively innocuous and did not involve the deprivation of liberty to African-Americans. Some of them were presented in a block appeal, and are collectively referred to as the Slaughter House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873). These cases challenged an attempt by Louisiana to allow the City of New Orleans to establish a corporate monopoly on all butchering and slaughtering activity. A group of white butchers challenged the law, stating that it violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection. However, the Court disagreed with this interpretation. It held that the Fourteenth Amendment should be narrowly construed, to only protect those rights one had as an American citizen, and did not protect rights of state citizenship. Furthermore, the Court seemed to chide the white butchers for their attempt to use the Fourteenth Amendment to launch an equal protection claim. The Court stated that the Federal government came to recognize that:

notwithstanding the formal recognition by those States of the abolition of slavery, the condition of the slave race would, without further protection of the Federal government, be almost as bad as it was before. Among the first acts of legislation adopted by several of the States in the legislative bodies which claimed to be in their normal relations with the Federal government, were laws which imposed upon the colored race onerous disabilities and burdens, and curtailed their rights in the pursuit of life, liberty, and property to such an extent that their freedom was of little value, while they had lost the protection which they had received from their former owners from motives both of interest and humanity.

They were in some States forbidden to appear in the towns in any other character than menial servants. They were required to reside on and cultivate the soil without the right to purchase or own it. They were excluded from many occupations of gain, and were not permitted to give testimony in the courts in any case where a white man was a party. It was said that their lives were at the mercy of bad men, either because the laws for their protection were insufficient or were not enforced.

These circumstances, whatever of falsehood or misconception may have been mingled with their presentation, forced upon the statesmen who had conducted the Federal government in safety through the crisis of the rebellion, and who supposed that by the thirteenth article of amendment they had secured the result of their labors, the conviction that something more was necessary in the way of constitutional protection to the unfortunate race who had suffered so much. They accordingly passed through Congress the proposition for the fourteenth amendment, and they declined to treat as restored to their full participation in the government of the Union the States which had been in insurrection, until they [83 U.S. 36, 71] ratified that article by a formal vote of their legislative bodies. (83 U.S. 36, 70-71).

This judicial recognition of institutionalized racism continued in the case of Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 (1880). Strauder, an African-American defendant, was convicted of murder by an all-white jury. He challenged his conviction, alleging that a jury composed entirely of white people violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court agreed with Strauder, and held that such exclusionary jury selection methods violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court expanded on the Fourteenth Amendment's purpose, by explaining:

This is one of a series of constitutional provisions having a common purpose; namely, securing to a race… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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