The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1868, prohibits state governments from denying citizens the “equal protection of the laws.” Although precisely what the framers of the amendment meant by this equal protection clause remains unclear, all interpreters agree that the framers’ immediate objective was to provide a constitutional warrant for the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed the citizenship of all persons born in the United States and subject to United States jurisdiction. This declaration, which was echoed in the text of the Fourteenth Amendment, was designed primarily to counter the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford that Black people in the United States could be denied citizenship. The act was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, who argued that the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, did not provide Congress with the authority to extend citizenship and equal protection to the freed slaves. Although Congress promptly overrode Johnson’s veto, supporters of the act sought to ensure its constitutional foundations with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The broad language of the amendment strongly suggests that its framers were proposing to write into the Constitution not a laundry list of specific civil rights but a principle of equal citizenship that forbids organized society from treating any individual as a member of an inferior class. Yet for the first eight decades of the amendment’s existence, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the amendment betrayed this ideal of equality. In the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, for example, the Court invented the “state action” limitation, which asserts that “private” decisions by owners of public accommodations and other commercial businesses to segregate their facilities are insulated from the reach of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.
After the Second World War, a judicial climate more hospitable to equal protection claims culminated in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Two doctrines embraced by the Supreme Court during this period extended the amendment’s reach. First, the Court required especially strict scrutiny of legislation that employed a “suspect classification,” meaning discrimination against a group on grounds that could be construed as racial. This doctrine has broadened the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to other, nonracial forms of discrimination, for while some justices have refused to find any legislative classification other than race to be constitutionally disfavored, most have been receptive to arguments that at least some nonracial discriminations, sexual discrimination in particular, are “suspect” and deserve this heightened scrutiny by the courts. Second, the Court relaxed the state action limitation on the Fourteenth Amendment, bringing new forms of private conduct within the amendment’s reach.