Friday, May 4, 2012 – Essay # 55 – Amendment XIV, Section 5 – Guest Essayist: Timothy Sandefur, Author and a principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation
Amendment XIV, Section 5:
The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment seems unprepossessing, but it has become the focus of some of the most important constitutional disputes in recent decades. That section gives Congress the power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment “by appropriate legislation.” But what kind of legislation is “appropriate”?
It seems obvious that these words were added to allow Congress to pass civil rights laws; indeed, the Amendment was partly written in response to President Andrew Johnson’s assertion that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was unconstitutional. By allowing Congress to pass legislation to protect the “privileges or immunities” of all Americans, along with their rights to due process of law and the equal protection of the laws, the Fourteenth Amendment’s authors hoped that the new guarantees would give real substance to the nation’s “new birth of freedom.” The 1866 Civil Rights Act was followed by others in 1871 and 1875. But the latter Act—which prohibited racial discrimination in “public accommodations” like theaters and restaurants—was held unconstitutional in an 1883 decision called the Civil Rights Cases. The Supreme Court ruled that the Amendment only allowed Congress to prohibit state governments from racial bias, but that Congress could not forbid private citizens from discriminating. The only dissenter in that decision was Justice John Marshall Harlan, who years later would also write the only dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. He argued that the Civil Rights Acts should still be held constitutional under the Thirteenth Amendment, because racial discrimination was a component of the “slavery” that that Amendment prohibited.
After the Civil Rights Cases, Congress began relying on another constitutional provision for power to prohibit discrimination: the Commerce Clause. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and other laws bar businesses from discriminating or impose other restrictions on them do so only on the theory that their activities have some effect on interstate commerce. Although in the 1976 case of Runyon v. McCrary, the Court seemed to agree with Justice Harlan that the Thirteenth Amendment allowed Congress to ban private racial discrimination, Congress and the courts have still continued to rely on the Commerce Clause.
The difference between using Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment and using the Commerce Clause became especially important in the wake of a 1990 Supreme Court decision involving religious freedom—a decision that provoked a showdown between Congress and the Court. That case, Employment Division v. Smith, was interpreted by some religious conservatives as watering down the First Amendment’s protections for religious liberty. Congress responded to those by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which tried to instruct courts on how to address First Amendment Claims. Congress said it was using the powers given to it by Section Five, because the law was designed to provide greater protection for federal civil rights. But the Supreme Court disagreed in a follow-up case called City of Boerne v. Flores. It ruled that Section Five does not give Congress limitless power to protect rights in whatever way it pleases; in order to qualify as “appropriate legislation,” a law passed under this Section must be “congruent and proportional” to the harms that Congress wants to prevent. Congress cannot simply create new “rights” under this provision, or alter the meaning of existing rights as understood in judicial precedents. It can only remedy specific wrongs to actual, existing rights.
This “congruence and proportionality” rule for deciding what laws are “appropriate” under the Fourteenth Amendment has remained controversial ever since. On one hand, it makes sense, because the Amendment was meant to give Congress power to enforce the constitutional guarantees that states had regularly ignored before the Civil War, not to dictate what those rights mean, let alone to give federal lawmakers limitless power to implement whatever programs they see fit. On the other hand, the Constitution contains no explicit “congruence and proportionality” requirement, and allowing judges to decide what laws are “congruent and proportional” seems to weaken Congress’s ability to check or balance the courts. City of Boerne is a prime example: Congress perceived the Smith case as a threat to constitutional values, and enacted what it hoped would be a remedy—but the Court struck down that law, also, thus creating a constitutional trump card. When Congress responded to that decision with yet another law expanding protection for religious freedom, it did so under a different constitutional provision entirely.
The conflict between the Commerce Clause and Section Five has also been at the center of recent cases involving the principle of “sovereign immunity”—the long-standing legal privilege under which states cannot be sued without their consent. The Supreme Court has held that Congress cannot simply eliminate this privilege, except under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment, if doing so meets the “congruent and proportional” test. Thus in Nevada v. Hibbs (2003), the Court ruled that Congress could nullify the state’s legal immunity in order to enforce federal laws that were “narrowly targeted” against sex discrimination by employers. The law in question there was the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which requires employers—including state governments—to give employees time off to care for sick family members. But the same law requires employers to give workers time off for their own medical needs. When a Maryland state employee was denied leave to care for his own medical condition, he sued the state, which tried to have the case thrown out on sovereign immunity grounds. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against the employee last month. The self-care provisions of the Act, wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, were not the same kind of civil rights protections that were at issue in the Hibbs case. That meant that “abrogating the States’ immunity from suits for damages for failure to give self-care leave is not a congruent and proportional remedy.”
Decisions like these show how the constitutional tensions that led to the Civil War live on. In the wake of an awful war caused in part by the states’ resistance to federal authority, the Fourteenth Amendment’s authors wanted to give Congress power to enforce the civil rights of all Americans. But they also preserved the autonomy of state governments, because they understood that a decentralized federal system can be essential to protecting individual freedom. Today, courts and Congress struggle to find an acceptable balance between different constitutional clauses and between different conceptions of the role of government in safeguarding civil rights.
Timothy Sandefur is a principal attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation and author of Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America (Cato Institute, 2006) and The Right to Earn A Living: Economic Freedom And The Law (Cato Institute, 2010).