Equal Protection Clause

  • October 8, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Herman N. (Rusty) Johnson, Jr., Associate Professor of Law, Samford University Cumberland School of Law

    The state of Alabama has once again relegated some of its citizens to second-class status.  The confluence of driver’s license office closures and a much maligned voter identification law fosters the dishonoring of Alabama’s black and impoverished citizens in a perpetual cycle of deprivation and struggle.

    The genesis of the recent strife begins with Alabama’s enactment of a voter ID law in 2011, requiring citizens to present a valid, government-issued ID to vote at polls beginning in 2014. One of the most common forms of ID satisfying the state law are driver’s licenses. Pursuant to the state’s own study conducted in 2014, 10 percent of registered voters – 250,000 citizens – lack any form of the required photo ID, and 20 percent of registered voters – 500,000 citizens – lack a valid Alabama driver’s license or non-driver photo ID.

    Ostensibly due to spending reductions in Alabama’s fiscal year 2016 budget, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (“ALEA”), of which the Driver License Division is a part, closed 31 part-time, satellite driver’s license offices. As a result of these closures, 28 of Alabama’s 67 counties will not have facilities to issue licenses to first-time driver’s license examinees or out-of-state transplants seeking an Alabama license. Those seeking license renewals may do so at county probate offices or online (yet those options present their own problems).

    Citizens and civil rights defenders decry the closures due to the disproportionate burden massed upon black citizens and the impoverished in the largely rural counties. The closures eradicate eight of the ten counties in Alabama with the highest percentages of non-white, registered voters. Indeed, those eight counties comprise the only counties where more than 75% of the registered voters are black citizens. A refined analysis portrays a more troublesome picture. While 80 percent of the counties with non-white voting majorities suffer the closures, only 35 percent of the counties with white voting majorities bear any consequences (20 of the 57 remaining counties in Alabama), thus leaving 65 percent of the counties with majority-white voters largely unaffected. This disparity in the closures’ impact starkly portrays the inequity in ALEA’s budget cutting.

  • July 31, 2015
    Video Interview

    by Nanya Springer

    In the current political climate, the idea that Congress should pass legislation redistributing wealth and resources is met with abhorrence by conservatives and, often, with apathy by liberals. This was not always the case, argues William Forbath, Associate Dean for Research and Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law at the University of Texas School of Law. At one time, liberals widely viewed economic inequality as a constitutional issue and believed redistributive measures were not only permissible, but constitutionally required to ensure the equal protection of the laws and to promote the general welfare.

    In an interview with ACSblog, Forbath explains that today’s liberals have come to think the Constitution does not speak to the redistribution of resources. This contradicts the views of key historical lawmakers who discussed anti-trust, banking, currency and trade as constitutional issues and who viewed Congress as constitutionally obliged to promote the country’s broad economic wellbeing through redistributive policies. Forbath adds that even before the Equal Protection Clause appeared in the federal Constitution, state constitution guarantees of equal protection focused on protecting the poor from legislation that favored economic elites. “The Constitution needs safeguards against oligarchy,” he asserts. “Ours is an anti-oligarchy Constitution.”

    Noting America’s shrinking middle class and diminishing equality of opportunity, Forbath concludes that “these older generations were right . . . You can’t keep a constitutional democracy or a republican form of government with boundless inequality. You can’t keep it without a broad middle class. You can’t keep it alongside an oligarchic, entrenched economic elite.” Instead he, along with fellow University of Texas Law Professor Joseph Fishkin, promotes a return to the idea that we have a “Constitution of opportunity” ― one that supports a robust middle class and ensures opportunity for all, not just the privileged.

    Watch the full interview here or below.


  • April 22, 2015

    by Caroline Cox

    In SalonMarcy Wheeler explains why new reforms governing surveillance are not likely to solve many problems. 
    Russell Berman reports for The Atlantic that after a five-and-a-half month wait, the Senate is ready to confirm Loretta Lynch as U.S. Attorney General. 
    At the Constitutional Accountability Center's Text & History BlogDavid H. Gans discusses the importance of the Equal Protection Clause in the same-sex marriage cases.
    Noah Feldman writes at Bloomberg View that the Supreme Court's decision on Tuesday that police cannot performa a cannot prolong a traffic stop to search for drugs with a trained canine illustrates a growing concern on the Supreme Court with police conduct. 
    At NPRNina Totenberg provides further coverage of the Supreme Court's Tuesday decision on canine drug searches during traffic stops.
  • February 10, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    In recent years, there has been much discussion about whether America is now a “post-racial” society.  The introduction of the first non-white family into the White House was accompanied by some enthusiastic declarations of victory over the scourge of racism.  Observers looked to the president and to other successful minorities and decided that yes, racism is indeed over.

    But focusing on the most successful elements of any demographic group proves little, for wealth has the ability to elevate and to insulate.  One area where this is most evident is in the American criminal justice system.  When navigating the justice system, the ability to hire top-notch legal counsel or to post a significant bond drastically affects the outcome of a case.  This is true for both white citizens and for citizens of color.

    Unfortunately, however, racial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color.  There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.

    The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system.  From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white.

  • October 17, 2013
    Many reasonable accounts from high court correspondents suggest the U.S. Supreme Court appears likely to uphold a Michigan constitutional amendment banning the use of race-conscious admissions policies at public universities.
    On Tuesday, with hundreds of protestors gathered outside the courtroom, oral arguments in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action were presented to eight justices of the high court, with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself. The constitutional amendment at issue, passed via state referendum in 2006, faces a challenge from a coalition of affirmative action advocates that claims the amendment violates the Equal Protection Clause by placing an undue burden on minority populations. In part, the Coalition says that legacy students could lobby university officials for preference in the admissions process, while minority students must win a statewide repeal of the amendment before taking similar action.
    In general, the Supreme Court’s conservative justices did not appear ready to support the Coalition’s arguments. For example, in response to civil rights attorney Mark Rosenbaum, arguing on behalf of the Coalition, Reuters reports that Chief Justice John Roberts “leaned forward from his center chair on the mahogany bench and said curtly: ‘You could say that the whole point of…the Equal Protection Clause is to take race off the table.’” He went on to ask if it was “unreasonable for the state to say, ‘Look, race is a lightning rod…We want to take race off the table and try to achieve diversity without racial preferences’?”
    For his part, Justice Anthony Kennedy was restrained in his questioning, appearing to seek a narrow justification for upholding the Michigan amendment while leaving in place important precedent. After all, rulings in 1969 and 1982 in cases from Akron and Seattle – in which the Court struck down voter measures that removed anti-discrimination laws in education and housing – complicate any path to upholding the amendment. Michigan Solicitor General John Bursch suggested a possible distinction: earlier cases involved anti-discrimination laws, while the amendment at hand only demands equal treatment. “This was a broad-based law that was primarily motivated by the people of Michigan’s decision to move past the day when we are always focused on race,” Bursch explained.