Equal Protection 5th And 14th Amendments

The United States Constitution is the oldest surviving framework of government in the world. Signed in 1787, it is still considered the supreme law of the United States today. The Constitution separates the powers that each branch of federal government is responsible for. Often referred to as, “checks and balances,” each branch of government has the power and duty to check the other two branches to ensure no one branch becomes too powerful. There are three branches of the federal government – legislative, executive, and judicial. 

The legislative branch, also known as congress, is made up of the senate and the house of representatives. The legislature is responsible for writing, debating, and passing bills which become laws when signed by the president. 

The executive branch is made up of the President and Vice President of the United States, along with their cabinet. Their main duty is to sign bills to make them laws, or to veto bills to reject proposed laws.   

The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court of the United States, along with other federal district and appeals courts.  Their main duty is to determine whether laws enacted by Congress and other authorities violate the constitution, and to overturn laws that do. 

The Constitution also lays out certain liberties and freedoms we enjoy as individual citizens. It aims to strike a balance between how much authority federal and state governments have versus how much individual freedom we have as citizens. One way the Constitution protects individual freedom is through the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which reads, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The 14th Amendment originally only applied to state governments, but through judicial interpretation, the Court found it also applies to the federal government through the 5th Amendment. This is known as reverse incorporation. 

According to a car accident lawyer, the Equal Protection Clause prohibits the government from enacting laws that discriminate or treat similarly situated people differently. If the government does enact a law that seems to discriminate against a class of people, one may bring an equal protection challenge to the law in order for the courts to strike down the law as unconstitutional. There are three different levels of review that the court will implement when hearing an equal protection challenge. These levels of review turn on what kind of class is being discriminated against. 

What Is The Classification? 

The first step in any equal protection challenge is to ask how the government is drawing a distinction among people. The courts have decided there are three different types of classifications: suspect classifications, quasi-suspect classifications, and non-suspect classifications. 

What Is The Appropriate Level Of Review? 

The type of classification the law is discriminating against will in turn trigger what level of review, or scrutiny, the court will implement to determine whether the law needs to be struck down. There are three different types of review: strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, and rational basis review. 

1. Suspect classifications include classifications based on ethnicity, race, alienage, and nationality. These types of classifications trigger the highest level of review, known as strict scrutiny

Strict scrutiny

Under strict scrutiny, a law will be upheld if it is proven necessary to achieve a compelling government purpose. The government must have a significant reason for discriminating, and it must show that the law is narrowly tailored to that purpose. In other words, the government has the burden of showing the law cannot achieve its objective through any less discriminatory alternative. Strict scrutiny review usually strikes down challenged laws as unconstitutional, as it is the highest standard of review. 

2. Quasi-Suspect classifications include classifications based on sex, gender, and legitimacy (children born out of wedlock). These types of classifications trigger intermediate scrutiny.

Intermediate scrutiny

Under intermediate scrutiny, a law is upheld if it is substantially related to an important government purpose. In other words, the Court need not find that the government’s purpose is “compelling,” but it must characterize the objective as “important.” The means used need not be necessary, but it must have a “substantial relationship” to the end being sought. The government has the burden of proof under intermediate scrutiny. 

3. Non-Suspect classifications include all other classifications not listed above, including but not limited to sexual orientation, age, and wealth. These types of classifications trigger the lowest level of review, known as rational basis.

Rational Basis Review 

Under rational basis review, a law will be upheld as constitutional if it is rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. Rational basis is the minimum level of scrutiny that all laws challenged under equal protection must meet. Unlike the other two levels of review, the person challenging the law has the burden of proving the law is not rationally related to a legitimate government purpose. “Rationally related,” and “legitimate purpose,” are construed very broadly, making this level of review very deferential to the government. Thus, most laws being challenged under a rational basis standard are upheld as constitutional. 

Thanks to Eglet Adams Eglet Ham and Henriod for their insight on the Equal Protection Clause.

If you believe that your rights have been violated, contact a lawyer near you.