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Due Process and Civil Rights

The United States Constitution guarantees certain civil rights or civil liberties to citizens. Specifically, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides “due process” and “equal protection” to all Americans. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the states from passing or enforcing any law that abridges the “privileges or immunities” of citizens or deprives a person of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Put another way, the Due Process Clause protects citizens from interference by a state with most of the rights listed in the United States Constitution.

The Fourteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1868 to counteract the effects of state laws that were intended to restrict the civil rights of former slaves. In fact, during the Reconstruction Era, Congress passed a number of civil rights statutes, pursuant to the power given it by the Fourteenth Amendment.

What is “procedural” due process? What is “substantive” due process?

The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees both procedural due process and substantive due process. Procedural due process safeguards the protections granted by the Constitution. The procedural safeguards include the right to a fair hearing when a state’s conduct or “state action” has been questioned. A state can include a city, county, or other locality. Procedural due process applies in both criminal and civil law.

Substantive due process safeguards an individual from a state’s interference with fundamental freedoms, civil rights, or civil liberties. A state can only “infringe” upon such a right if the method or restriction used by the state is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling state interest.” Not surprisingly, there has always been–and probably always will be–controversy surrounding a state’s authority to regulate and restrict some of the fundamental substantive rights.

Does the Due Process Clause tell a state what process to use?

The Fourteenth Amendment does not specify or outline the “end” or goal that is to be accomplished, other than the goal of giving citizens fair and impartial proceedings in actions against a state.

In 2004, the United States Supreme Court ruled that pursuant to the Due Process Clause, people with disabilities had to be given access to state buildings and courts; if a state failed to do so, it could find itself liable for violations of civil rights. Four years earlier, some members of the Court recognized that the Due Process Clause protected the fundamental rights of parents to make decisions about the care and raising of their children.

The Fourteenth Amendment is not applicable to the federal government. Instead, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that the federal government cannot deprive a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The Fifth Amendment states that a person shall not be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without “due process of law.”

Copyright 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.


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