Law Day, held every year on May 1, is a national day set aside to celebrate the rule of law. The day underscores how law and the legal process contribute to freedoms that all Americans share. It also provides an opportunity to recognize the role of courts in a constitutional democracy.
This year, as they have for the past few decades, judges from Pierce County Superior Court will present programs in Tacoma high schools. They’re scheduled to speak in a total of 16 classes about this year’s Law Day theme: the 14th Amendment.
Even if you don’t have a student who will attend a program, this is a good opportunity to learn about and discuss with other family members the important rights contained in this amendment. When it comes to constitutional amendments, the 14th has played an out-sized role in advancing civilized society and securing equal treatment under the law.
A bit of history is in order. It has been said that Abraham Lincoln offered a vision for a new constitutional order in his Gettysburg Address, and that vision found expression in the 14th Amendment.
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It was passed in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War. The intent was to answer the question of citizenship of African-Americans … “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”
It also extended “due process” to the states, not just the federal government, and offered “equal protection of the laws.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to interpret the 14th Amendment a number of times, and those decisions have had a profound impact on daily American life and its citizens. Here are just a few:
▪ In 1932, in Powell v. Alabama, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the “Scottsboro boys” and set a precedent that the right to a lawyer is required for death penalty cases under the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause, whether in federal or state courts.
▪ In 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren, reading his first major opinion from the bench, said: “We conclude, unanimously, that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The lead counsel for the plaintiff in that case was Thurgood Marshall, later appointed a Supreme Court justice.
▪ In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Court struck down a Virginia law that prohibited inter-racial marriage and held that marriage was a fundamental right of all citizens, no matter their race.
▪ In 1982, in Plyer v. Doe, an important case for undocumented immigrants, the court struck down a Texas statute that denied education funding for the children of undocumented immigrants. In holding that the policy was a violation of Equal Protection, the Court extended 14th Amendment protections to noncitizens.
And in 2015, in the historic decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, thereby granting the constitutional right to marry to LGBT Americans throughout the country.
As you can see, the 14th Amendment’s reach has brought about significant change in American society. Indeed, its application has profoundly changed our understanding of equality and human dignity.
Through its citizenship, due process and equal protection clauses, this transformative amendment advances the rights of all Americans.
Pierce County Superior Court judges look forward to sharing that understanding with Tacoma’s high schools on Law Day.
Judge Michael Schwartz represents Department 3 on the Pierce County Superior Court. He has been on the bench since 2015.