My Turn/Flynn: 14th Amendment crucial in most Supreme Court civil rights cases

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Editor’s note: This is the last of a series of columns written by members of the Franklin County Bar Association on aspects of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which is the focus of the association’s Law Day celebration today, May 1. The opinions are those of the individual lawyers and not the association.

For those readers following the series of articles on the 14th Amendment leading up to Law Day today, we should take the time to thank attorneys Lisa Kent, Isaac Mass, Shannan Leelyn, and Jean Derderian for their excellent articles. These accomplished attorneys have explained to the reader the importance of the privileges of immunities, equal protection, due process and citizenship clauses found in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to our U.S. Constitution.

Ratified on July 9, 1868, Section 1 of the 14th Amendment reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Just 80 words. Nevertheless, these are the most litigated words in the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment has been the impetus behind almost all the U.S. Supreme Court’s civil rights decisions. So many of the rights we take for granted today are founded in the guarantees of the 14th Amendment.

In Brown v. Board of Education, May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, which allowed segregation of public schools based on race so long as they provided “equal” education. The Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment guaranteed the rights of all children to attend any public school regardless of their race.

Prior to Gideon v. Wainwright, May 18, 1962, citizens without the financial means to hire an attorney could be denied counsel, forced to represent themselves, and sentenced to prison. This is precisely what happened to Mr. Clarence Gideon in a Florida court. The Supreme Court unanimously held that under the 14th Amendment, states had to guarantee the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel to all indigent defendants in all state courts.

In Griswold v. Connecticut, June 7, 1965, Estelle Griswold was arrested for violating a Connecticut law prohibiting counseling and prescribing of contraceptives. The Supreme Court struck down the Connecticut law as violating the 14th Amendments due process clause. States could no longer prohibit individuals from obtaining birth control, such laws being predominantly founded on religious beliefs.

In Loving v. Virginia, June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the 14th Amendment guaranteed the rights of all citizens to marry regardless of race, striking down the criminal conviction of Richard and Mildred Loving for violating Virginia’s interracial marriage law and at the same time striking down all other similar state laws.

In Obergefell v. Hodges, June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court held that the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment prohibited states from denying same sex couples the right to marry.

Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of Americans would look at these civil rights and think, well, that’s just ridiculous. How could a state prohibit interracial marriage, the right to an attorney, or for a child to attend any public school regardless of their race? Yet, the dates of these decisions are within the lifetime of over 30 percent of our population, underscoring just how precious the 14th Amendment is to our way of life. The 14th Amendment is undeniably one of the most important guardians of our civil liberties and it is for this reason, the Franklin County Bar Association chose it as our theme for this year’s Law Day celebrations.

As president of the Franklin County Bar Association, I would like to extend an invitation to all readers to join us at the Franklin County Justice Center for our Law Day celebrations today at 3:30 p.m. Two distinguished speakers, U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Robertson and attorney William Newman, representing the ACLU, will present their thoughts on the importance of the 14th Amendment. We hope to see you there.