1789 - Government under the U.S. Constitution begins
Madison then proposes amendments, which become the Bill of Rights.
On March 4, government under the U.S. Constitution begins. To address concerns raised during ratification, James Madison proposes articles of amendment, one of which provides “No state shall violate the equal rights of conscience, or the freedom of the press, or the trial by jury in criminal cases.” This prohibition on states is eliminated when Madison’s proposal is recast as 12 amendments, which Congress approves and submits to the states for ratification on September 25. In 1791 ten of these amendments are ratified and will become known as the Bill of Rights.
1833 - Barron v. Baltimore
Supreme Court rules that first 10 amendments do not apply to states, only to the federal government.
The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, holds that not only the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment at issue in the case, but all the amendments ratified in 1791 “contain no expression indicating an intention to apply them to the State governments.”
1857 - Dred Scott v. Sandford
Blacks could not be citizens of the United States and are categorically excluded from “We the People.”
In Dred Scott, the Supreme Court rules that “a negro of the African race,” whether emancipated or enslaved, is part of a “class of persons” who were “subjugated by the dominant [white] race” and are not part of the “sovereign people” under the U.S. Constitution. They “can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.” The Fourteenth Amendment nullifies Dred Scott.
1863 - Gettysburg Address
Lincoln offers a vision for a new constitutional order, which will find expression in the Fourteenth Amendment.
In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln sets out a vision for a new constitutional order—“a new birth of freedom” that is truly “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln invokes the Declaration of Independence as the origin of the American nation and source for the conjoined principles of liberty and equality. This new order would subsequently find constitutional expression in the Fourteenth Amendment.
1868 - Fourteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified and becomes part of the Constitution on July 9. Rep. John Bingham is its principal author.
Congress adopts the Fourteenth Amendment on June 18, 1866 and it is ratified by the states and becomes part of the Constitution on July 9, 1868. Representative John Bingham of Ohio, who Justice Hugo Black calls “the Madison … of the Fourteenth Amendment,” writes the text of Section One of the Amendment. This section includes the due process, equal protection, and citizenship clauses, which, today, are at the heart of many of the most important U.S. constitutional protections. Bingham’s use of “privileges or immunities” is explicitly drawn from the language of Dred Scott and is intended to fundamentally reject the case. The Fourteenth constitutionalizes national citizenship and other provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and is part of the trio of Reconstruction Amendments, including the Thirteenth and Fifteenth, which have been collectively termed “America’s Second Founding.”
1871 - Civil Rights Act to Enforce Fourteenth Amendment
Landmark federal legislation today provides remedies for deprivations of civil rights “under color of law.”
Congress passes a Civil Rights Act “to enforce provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The legislation is also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. Today, section one of the Act has been codified as Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code. Plaintiffs may invoke Section 1983 to sue persons acting under “color of law”—unlawfully abusing or misusing their official powers while acting on behalf of government. The statute affords judicial protection for deprivations of civil rights, especially those under the Fourteenth, Fourth, and First Amendments. Among possible Section 1983 lawsuits are claims of police brutality or false arrest. Section 1983 remedies have increased substantially since the Supreme Court’s 1961 ruling in Monroe v. Pape.
1873 - Trial of Susan B. Anthony
Charged with unlawfully voting for Congress, Anthony argues women have a constitutional right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment.
On June 17, suffragist Susan B. Anthony goes on federal trial in Canandaigua, New York, charged with “unlawfully” voting for Congress the prior November “being …a person of the female sex.” Central to her argument is that that the citizenship and privileges or immunities provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment effectively extend the right to vote to women. Anthony was, however, found guilty and sentenced to a $100 fine, of which she famously paid “not a penny.” She used the trial to promote women’s right to vote, which would not be constitutionalized until the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
1883 - Civil Rights Cases
Invalidates Civil Rights Act of 1875, sustaining Jim Crow racial segregation in public accommodations.
In the Civil Rights Cases, the Supreme Court holds that key provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 are “unconstitutional enactments” not authorized by either the Thirteenth or Fourteenth Amendments. Congress had legislated that “all persons…shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations…of inns, public conveyances…and other places of public amusement” and provided remedies to enforce this provision. The ruling helps sustain Jim Crow racial segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial discrimination in “public accommodations,” which survives a constitutional challenge in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, the Court holding that Congress was within its authority under its Commerce Clause powers.
1898 - United States v. Wong Kim Ark
Guarantees birthright national citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment to all born on American territory.
Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco in 1873 to parents “of Chinese descent, and subjects of the Emperor of China.” Establishing a principle of American birthright citizenship, the Supreme Court rules that “the Fourteenth Amendment affirms the ancient and fundamental rule of citizenship by birth … [which] includes the children born, within the territory of the United States, of all other persons, of whatever race or color.”
1905 - Lochner v. New York
The Supreme Court interprets the Fourteenth Amendment to provide a right to contract that thwarts government regulation of business.
The Supreme Court strikes down a New York law that sets a limit on workers’ hours. The justices rule that “the general right to make a contract in relation to his business is part of the liberty of the individual protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution”—specifically, through its prohibition on “depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Beginning with West Coast Hotel v. Parrish in 1937, the federal courts turn away from such contract rights-based “substantive due process” jurisprudence, permitting New Deal and subsequent legislation to regulate economic markets.
1923 - Meyer v. Nebraska
A state law prohibiting teaching foreign languages to young children violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s liberty guarantee, which protects “certain fundamental rights” of individuals.
The Supreme Court holds that a Nebraska law prohibiting the teaching of German or any other modern foreign language to young children who have not yet passed eighth grade “unreasonably infringes the liberty guaranteed …by the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Court declares that “the individual has certain fundamental rights which must be respected” and offers such other examples as “the right of the individual …to marry, establish a home and bring up children.” Meyer is cited in such later landmark individual autonomy/right to privacy cases as Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Lawrence v. Texas. Moreover, it was “the first case in which the Court invoked the Fourteenth Amendment to protect noneconomic rights against intrusion by the states.”
1925 - Gitlow v. New York
First Amendment freedom of speech and of the press apply to the states via the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Upholding the New York conviction of socialist Benjamin Gitlow for criminal anarchy, the Supreme Court rules that “we may and do assume that freedom of speech and of the press which are protected by the First Amendment from abridgment by Congress are among the fundamental personal rights and ‘liberties’ protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from impairment by the States.” Gitlow is the first twentieth-century case in which the Supreme Court applies specific constitutional rights to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process provision.
1932 - Powell v. Alabama
A right to legal counsel in capital cases applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Supreme Court doctrine selectively “incorporates” the Bill of Rights through the Fourteenth’s due process clause.
In 1931, eight young black men, known as the Scottsboro Boys, were convicted in Alabama courts of raping two white women and sentenced to death. In Powell v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rules that the defendants had been denied “effective” assistance of counsel, that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to legal counsel in capital cases, and that this right applied not only in federal courts, but also to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court famously broadened this right to counsel to felony cases in 1963 in Gideon v. Wainwright. By the 1930s, and continuing into the Warren Court of the 1960s and beyond, the Supreme Court determines that specific guarantees of the Bill of Rights apply to states. In Palko v. Connecticut in 1937, the Court reasoned that “particular amendments have been found to be implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, and thus, through the Fourteenth Amendment, become valid as against the states.” The Palko Court referred to this as a “process of absorption,” but the doctrine has become known as selective (rather than total) incorporation: many, but not all, of the rights in the first ten amendments have been so incorporated.
1948 - Truman Issues Executive Order 9981 to Desegregate U.S. Military
Spurred by organized World War II-era civil rights efforts.
Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981 on July 26, declaring that “the policy of the President [is] that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” The order stipulates that it “shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible.” Organized civil rights efforts, catalyzed by World War II, spur Truman’s action to desegregate America’s military.
1954 - Brown v. Board of Education
Racially segregated public schools violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
The Supreme Court unanimously holds in a consolidated case that racially segregated public schools violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, ruling that the “separate but equal” doctrine derived from Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision upholding a Louisiana law requiring racially segregated trains, was unconstitutional. The Brown Court reasoned “[W]e cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the [Fourteenth] Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.” The result: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
1962 - Baker v. Carr/Apportionment Cases
The equal protection clause requires that “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres.”
In a set of “apportionment” cases, including Baker v. Carr (1962), Gray v. Sanders (1963) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Warren Court set justiciable constitutional standards for state-drawn federal and state legislative districts. In Baker, the Court determined that Tennessee had “capriciously apportioned representatives” to its state legislature without any “reasonable formula,” such as districts of roughly equal current population, rather than drawn by county lines. In Gray, the Court justified its apportionment-case rulings: “the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the authority of a State Legislature [to design] geographical districts from which representatives are chosen either for the State Legislature or for the Federal House of Representatives.” It concluded: “The conception of political equality from the Declaration of Independence, to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address …can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.” In Reynolds, Chief Justice Earl Warren condensed the principle into one sentence: “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres.” In 2016, the Court again considered the “one person, one vote” principle in Evenwel v. Abbott, holding unanimously “that a state may draw its legislative districts based on total population,” rather than requiring only eligible voters be counted.
1964 - Civil Rights Act
Congress asserts constitutional powers to enforce civil rights that extend beyond the Fourteenth Amendment.
Termed “The Bill of the Century,” the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans racial segregation in public accommodations and the workplace, is enacted into law. The Civil Rights Act represents “the first piece of federal legislation that effectively banned wholly private racial discrimination.” Following passage, the Supreme Court promptly affirmed the authority of Congress to enforce the Civil Rights Act, through its Commerce Clause powers, in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States. As a result of that case and other court rulings, Congress has extended its enforcement of civil rights even beyond its powers under the Fourteenth Amendment.
1967 - Loving v. Virginia
Laws prohibiting interracial marriages violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry a person of another race cannot be infringed.
The Supreme Court unanimously strikes down Virginia’s antimiscegenation statute, which criminalized interracial marriages between white and “colored” persons, as violating the Fourteenth Amendment. The racial classifications in Virginia’s law were not only “directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment,” but also “deprive[d] all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.” The Court declared: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”
1978 - Regents of University of California v. Bakke
The use of racial quotas in university admissions does not meet equal protection requirements, but race may be considered as a factor in “properly devised” programs.
In a plurality opinion by Justice Lewis Powell, the Supreme Court strikes down a university’s “special admissions” program for members of a “minority group” as “invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment,” violating its equal protection clause. However, a majority of the Justices agree that “the State has a substantial interest that legitimately may be served by a properly devised admissions program involving the competitive consideration of race and ethnic origin.” Just what constitute “properly devised” university admissions programs that consider race to promote diversity has been clarified in subsequent equal protection affirmative action cases, including Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) and two Fisher v. University of Texas cases from 2013 and 2016.
1990 - Americans with Disabilities Act
Congresses passes legislation to provide legal recourse to redress discrimination faced by people with disabilities.
The National Council on Disability recommends and drafts the initial version of what becomes the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In enacting the ADA, Congress finds that “unlike individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age, individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of disability have often had no legal recourse to redress such discrimination.” One of the primary purposes of the ADA is “to invoke the sweep of congressional authority, including the power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment …in order to address the major areas of discrimination faced day-to-day by people with disabilities.”
1996 - United States v. Virginia
The Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy violates the equal protection clause.
The Supreme Court holds that the publicly funded Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It determines that Virginia has not met the “heightened” judicial review standard, an intermediate level of scrutiny applicable to sex-based classifications, to justify excluding women from VMI. The Court emphasized, “’Inherent differences’ between men and women, we have come to appreciate, remain cause for celebration, but not for denigration of the members of either sex or for artificial constraints on an individual’s opportunity.”
2010 - McDonald v. Chicago
Second Amendment rights are “fully applicable to the States” through the Fourteenth Amendment.
In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms for the purpose of self defense and invalidated a federal government-authorized District of Columbia law that banned handguns in the home. In McDonald, the Court further holds that Second Amendment rights are “fully applicable to the States” through the Fourteenth Amendment. “[T]he right to keep and bear arms is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty … or as we have said in a related context … [fundamental rights are those] ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.’” In a plurality opinion by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court grounds the incorporation of the Second Amendment in the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process, rather than the privileges or immunities, clause, as Justice Clarence Thomas does in a concurring opinion.
2015 - Obergefell v. Hodges
The fundamental right to marry extends to same-sex couples and is grounded synergistically on both due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Court struck down a state law that criminalized same-sex intimacy. In Obergefell, the Court prefaces its holding by observing that, for same-sex couples, “it does not follow that freedom stops there. Outlaw to outcast may be a step forward, but it does not achieve the full promise of liberty.” The institution of marriage has evolved historically. Its changes “worked deep transformations in its structure.” The Court proceeds to hold that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry, which is “inherent in the liberty of the person” under the Fourteenth Amendment and its due process clause. At the same time, the right of same-sex, as well as opposite-sex, couples to participate in the institution of marriage is also “derived” from the Fourteenth’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws. These two clauses, which protect liberty and equality, “are connected in a profound way, though they set forth independent principles.” With respect to the fundamental right to marry, there is a “synergy between the two protections.” The Court reasons, “The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era.”