Every American enjoys certain civil liberties, necessary to guarantee citizens’ ability to have justice, have political freedom, and participate freely in the political process, without unnecessary intrusion by the government. These rights are commonly denominated “Civil Rights,” most of which are specifically guaranteed by the first ten Amendments to the United States Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, along with the 14th Amendment, which imposes those rights as limitations on state actions. The civil rights expressed in the Bill of Rights include:
- Freedom of religion, speech, press, peacable assembly, and the right to petition the government over grievances (1st Amendment);
- The right to keep and bear arms (2nd Amendment);
- The right to be free from unreasonable searches or seizures, from warrants not based on probable cause, or warrants that fail to describe with particularity what is sought (4th Amendment);
- The right to a grand jury indictment if charged with a felony, the right to be free from double jeopardy, the criminal defendant’s right to silence, the right to due process (5th Amendment);
- The criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial by jury, the right to confront accusers, the right to put on witnesses of one’s own, and the right to counsel (6th Amendment); and
- The prohibitions on excessive bail, fines, and cruel and unusual punishment (8th Amendment).
The 13th and 14th Amendments were enacted in the context of the Civil War, and designed to prevent another. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery from the United States. The 14th Amendment strengthened federal power and did a number of important things:
- It made citizens of all persons born or naturalized in the U.S., including the freed slaves;
- It forbade any state to make or enforce laws abridging the privileges or immunities of U.S. citizens;
- It forbade any state to make or enforce laws abridging a citizen’s due process rights;
- -It forbade any state to make or enforce laws that would deny equal protection of the law to any person.
Of course, nothing in the Constitution required the states to make any legislation in favor of supporting these rights for individuals. That is where Congress stepped in, with its “Commerce Power.” The Interstate commerce power originates in U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, which allows Congress the power to regulate commerce among the several states. Assisted by the federal courts, Congress used this power extensively in the 20th century to pass legislation protecting individual rights and equal protection of the laws in situations that arguably “impact” interstate commerce, including several important civil rights statutes:
- The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended (Prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, in employment or in public accommodations, like restaurants, hotels, etc.);
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Prohibiting discrimination against voters and establishing federal supervision of voting processes in troublesome areas of the country);
- -The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)(Prohibiting discrimination against employees or potential employees age 40 or over);
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)(Prohibiting employment discrimination based solely on disability that can be equalized with reasonable accommodations).
Most states now have their own civil rights legislation. Often, the language mirrors that of the federal statutes, and state courts lean heavily upon federal court decisions in interpreting that language. However, some state statutes have been interpreted by state supreme courts to provide greater individual rights or to have a broader sweep than the corresponding federal law.
Whether federal or state law, or both, are involved, legal discrimination can only occur if a negative action is taken against a person in one of the named suspect classes (race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age over 40, or disability). Unfair treatment not stemming from membership in a suspect class does not violate the Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court has also played an activist role in establishing equal protection and due process rights through the controlling precedent of its case law, often providing more of a lead for Congress, and less of an after-the-fact interpreter function. In some truly notable decisions, the Court has:
- desegregated public school systems in Brown v. Board of Education (1954);
- given indigent criminal defendants the right to appointed counsel in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963);
- created a Constitutional right to privacy and gave women the right to choose abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973).
The Court has issued decisions in dozens of other cases extending individual liberties and protections. Its action in delineating the nuances of many civil rights has been a powerful force, creating much of what Americans know as their civil rights today.