There is one piece of legislation, dating back to 1868, which is cited more often in litigation than any other U.S. constitutional language: the 14th Amendment. The American Bar Association has chosen “The 14th Amendment: Transforming American Democracy” as the theme for Law Day 2017, celebrated on May 1.
Law Day presents educators with the opportunity to integrate lesson plans and classroom discussions relevant to American History, Civics, and the basic principles on which our country was founded.
Ratified on July 9, 1868, the 14th Amendment defines what it means to be a U.S. citizen, and grants all citizens equal protection under the law. Perhaps most significantly, it grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which includes former slaves, freed following the Civil War. Before this amendment, African Americans were non-citizens with very limited rights. Since 1868, the Supreme Court has built upon this law, extending rights to Native Americans and the children of immigrants. The Court has also decreed that once you have citizenship, it cannot be taken away and no subsequent law can reverse your rights.
Other critical clauses in the amendment grant all citizens “due process” – trial by jury – and equal voting rights. Originally in the U.S., only men over the age of 21 could vote. Through subsequent legislation built upon the amendment, voting rights were extended to all, negating discrimination based on gender or race.
This important law also enforces the Bill of Rights on all U.S. states, thereby eliminating the possibility that a state law could counteract the amendment and restrict citizens’ rights. Americans were thus able to end segregation in the South.
It’s a Big Deal
An article in the U.S. News and World Report says, “Here’s Why the 14th Amendment Is a Big Deal,” and cites several historic, ground-breaking court cases that used the amendment to transform and expand Americans’ civil rights.
- Brown v. Board of Education: In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, which had legalized segregation, as long as both whites and blacks had equal facilities. This “separate but equal” mantra supported segregation of water fountains, busses, public schools, etc. In 1954, the Court ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and brought about desegregation.
- Roe v. Wade: This famous case cited language in the 14th and other amendments to uphold Jane Roe’s right to privacy, which it decided had been violated by the Texas statute banning abortions.
- Obergefell v. Hodges: The 14th Amendment is still changing our democracy today. In 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy legalized gay marriage, saying that the due process clause extends to “intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs,” and cited the equal protection clause, saying that it “prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.”
Are There Potential Lawyers in Your Class?
Americans define and enforce our liberties and our way of life through legislation. Classroom discussion on the 14th Amendment and U.S. constitutional law may help you inspire and motivate a new generation of lawyers and legislators.
To spot the potential lawyers among your students, look for those who:
- Engage readily in group discussions
- Care about and stand up for fair treatment of others
- Like to argue for and support their opinions
- Have a knack for research and word-smithing
Envision’s summer programs NYLF Law and CSI and Intensive Law and Trial are perfect ways for students to explore a variety of careers in the legal field and acquire hands-on experience that will help them realize the power of their potential.
Law Day Resources for Educators
On the ABA Law Day website you can download a Planning Guide, which will help you organize and implement Law Day activities in your class. Valuable information in the Guide includes:
- Talking points
- Lesson plans for all grade levels
- Supreme Court cases related to the 14th Amendment
- Resources: Books, multimedia, etc.
You can find other law-related lesson plans on the Justice Teaching website, including 20-minute “Icebreaker” activities and ways to teach students about controversial issues.