Congress adopted the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, five years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. While the previous amendment ended slavery in the United States, the Fourteenth ensured all people were treated equally under the law. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from passing laws that disadvantaged people who were formerly enslaved. And as we see in the "enforcement clause," the amendment also grants the federal government the power to enforce it.
Fourteenth Amendment, Section 5:
"The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
In the aftermath of the Civil War, in addition to proposing to the states the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, Congress enacted seven statutes designed in a variety of ways to implement the provisions of these Amendments.1 Several of these laws were general civil rights statutes that broadly attacked racial and other discrimination on the part of private individuals and groups as well as by the states, but the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional or rendered ineffective practically all of these laws over the course of several years.2
In the end, Reconstruction was abandoned and with rare exceptions no cases were brought under the remaining statutes until fairly recently.3 Beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1957, however, Congress generally acted pursuant to its powers under the Commerce Clause4 until Supreme Court decisions indicated an expansive concept of congressional power under the Civil War amendments,5 which culminated in broad provisions against private interference with civil rights in the 1968 legislation.6
In enforcing by appropriate legislation the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees against state denials, Congress has the discretion to adopt remedial measures, such as authorizing persons being denied their civil rights in state courts to remove their cases to federal courts,7 and to provide criminal8 and civil9 liability for state officials and agents10 or persons associated with them11 who violate protected rights. These statutory measures designed to eliminate discrimination under color of law12 present no problems of constitutional foundation, although there may well be other problems of application.13 But the Reconstruction Congresses did not stop with the statutory implementation of rights guaranteed against state infringement, moving as well against private interference.
Thus, in the Civil Rights Act of 187514, Congress had proscribed private racial discrimination in the admission to and use of inns, public conveyances, theaters, and other places of public amusement. The Civil Rights Cases15 found this enactment to be beyond Congress's power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court observed that § 1 prohibited only state action and did not reach private conduct. Therefore, Congress's power under § 5 to enforce § 1 by appropriate legislation was held to be similarly limited. It does not invest Congress with power to legislate upon subjects which are within the domain of State legislation; but to provide modes of relief against State legislation, or State action, of the kind referred to. It does not authorize Congress to create a code of municipal law for the regulation of private rights; but to provide modes of redress against the operation of State laws, and the action of State officers executive or judicial, when these are subversive of the fundamental rights specified in the amendment.16 The holding in this case had already been preceded by United States v. Cruikshank17 and by United States v. Harris18 in which the Federal Government had prosecuted individuals for killing and injuring African Americans. The Amendment did not increase the power of the Federal Government vis-a-vis individuals, the Court held, only with regard to the states themselves.19
Cruikshank did, however, recognize a small category of federal rights that Congress could protect against private deprivation, rights that the Court viewed as deriving particularly from one's status as a citizen of the United States and that Congress had a general police power to protect.20 These rights included the right to vote in federal elections, general and primary,21 the right to federal protection while in the custody of federal officers,22 and the right to inform federal officials of violations of federal law.23 The right of interstate travel is a basic right derived from the Federal Constitution, which Congress may protect.24
In United States v. Williams,25 in the context of state action, the Court divided four-to-four over whether the predecessor of 18 U.S.C. § 241 in its reference to "a right or privilege secured . . . by the Constitution or laws of the United States" encompassed rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, or was restricted to those rights which Congress can beyond doubt constitutionally secure against interference by private individuals. This issue was again reached in United States v. Price26 and United States v. Guest,27 again in the context of state action, in which the Court concluded that the statute included within its scope rights guaranteed by the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.
Because the Court found that both Price and Guest were concerned with sufficient state action, it did not then have to reach the question of § 241's constitutionality when applied to private action that interfered with rights not the subject of general police power. But Justice Brennan, responding to what he apparently interpreted as language in the Court's opinion construing Congress's power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to be limited by the state action requirement, appended a lengthy statement, which a majority of the Justices joined, arguing that Congress's power was broader:28
"Although the Fourteenth Amendment itself . . . 'speaks to the State or to those acting under the color of its authority,' legislation protecting rights created by that Amendment, such as the right to equal utilization of state facilities, need not be confined to punishing conspiracies in which state officers participate. Rather, § 5 authorizes Congress to make laws that it concludes are reasonably necessary to protect a right created by and arising under that Amendment; and Congress is thus fully empowered to determine that punishment of private conspiracies interfering with the exercise of such a right is necessary to its full protection."29
The Justice throughout the opinion refers to Fourteenth Amendment rights, by which he meant rights that, in the words of 18 U.S.C. § 241, are "secured . . . by the Constitution," i.e., by the Fourteenth Amendment through prohibitory words addressed only to governmental officers. Thus, the Equal Protection Clause commands that all public facilities owned or operated by or on behalf of the State, be available equally to all persons; that access is a right granted by the Constitution, and § 5 is viewed as a positive grant of legislative power, authorizing Congress to exercise its discretion in fashioning remedies to achieve civil and political equality for all citizens. Within this discretion is the power to determine that in order adequately to protect the right to equal utilization of state facilities, it is also appropriate to punish other individuals who would deny such access.30
The Court, however, ultimately rejected this expansion of the powers of Congress in United States v. Morrison.31 In Morrison, the Court invalidated a provision of the Violence Against Women Act32 that established a federal civil remedy for victims of gender-motivated violence. The case involved a university student who brought a civil action against other students who allegedly raped her. The argument was made that there was a pervasive bias against victims of gender-motivated violence in state justice systems and that the federal remedy would offset and deter this bias. The Court first reaffirmed the state action requirement for legislation passed under the Fourteenth Amendment,33 dismissing the dicta in Guest, and reaffirming the precedents of the Civil Rights Cases and United States v. Harris. The Court also rejected the assertion that the legislation was corrective of bias in the courts, as the suits are not directed at the state or any state actor, but rather at the individuals committing the criminal acts.34
In the Civil Rights Cases,35 the Court observed that the legislation which Congress is authorized to adopt is not general legislation upon the rights of the citizen, but corrective legislation, that is, laws to counteract and overrule those state laws that § 1 forbids the states to adopt. The Court was quite clear that, under its responsibilities of judicial review, it was the body that would determine that a state law was impermissible and that a federal law passed pursuant to § 5 was necessary and proper to enforce § 1.36 But, in United States v. Guest,37 Justice Brennan protested that this view attributes a far too limited objective to the Amendment's sponsors, that in fact, the primary purpose of the Amendment was to augment the power of Congress, not the judiciary.
In Katzenbach v. Morgan,38 Justice Brennan, this time speaking for the Court, in effect overrode the limiting view and posited a doctrine by which Congress was to define the substance of what the legislation enacted pursuant to § 5 must be appropriate to. That is, in upholding the constitutionality of a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 196539 barring the application of English literacy requirements to a certain class of voters, the Court rejected a state argument "that an exercise of congressional power under § 5 . . . that prohibits the enforcement of a state law can only be sustained if the judicial branch determines that the state law is prohibited by the provisions of the Amendment that Congress sought to enforce."40
Because the Court had previously upheld an English literacy requirement under equal protection challenge,41 acceptance of the argument would have doomed the federal law. But, said Justice Brennan, Congress itself might have questioned the justifications put forward by the state in defense of its law and might have concluded that, instead of being supported by acceptable reasons, the requirements were unrelated to those justifications and discriminatory in intent and effect. The Court would not evaluate the competing considerations that might have led Congress to its conclusion; because Congress brought a specially informed legislative competence to an appraisal of voting requirements, it was Congress's prerogative to weigh the considerations and the Court would sustain the conclusion if we perceive a basis upon which Congress might predicate a judgment that the requirements constituted invidious discrimination.42
In dissent, Justice Harlan protested that "[i]n effect the Court reads § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment as giving Congress the power to define the substantive scope of the Amendment. If that indeed be the true reach of § 5, then I do not see why Congress should not be able as well to exercise its § 5 'discretion' by enacting statutes so as in effect to dilute equal protection and due process decisions of this Court."43
Justice Brennan rejected this reasoning: "We emphasize that Congress's power under § 5 is limited to adopting measures to enforce the guarantees of the Amendment; § 5 grants Congress no power to restrict, abrogate, or dilute these guarantees."44
Congress responded, however, in both fashions. On the one hand, in the 1968 Civil Rights Act Congress relied on Morgan in expanding federal powers to deal with private violence that is racially motivated, and to some degree in outlawing most private housing discrimination;45 on the other hand, it enacted provisions of law purporting to overrule the Court's expansion of the self-incrimination and right-to-counsel clauses of the Bill of Rights, expressly invoking Morgan.46
Congress's power under Morgan returned to the Court's consideration when several states challenged congressional legislation47 lowering the voting age in all elections to 18 and prescribing residency and absentee voting requirements for the conduct of presidential elections. In upholding the latter provision and in dividing over the former, the Court revealed that Morgan's vitality was in some considerable doubt, at least with regard to the reach that many observers had previously seen.48 Four Justices accepted Morgan in full,49 while one Justice rejected it totally50 and another would have limited it to racial cases.51 The other three Justices seemingly restricted Morgan to its alternate rationale in passing on the age reduction provision but the manner in which they dealt with the residency and absentee voting provision afforded Congress some degree of discretion in making substantive decisions about what state action is discriminatory above and beyond the judicial view of the matter.52
More recent decisions read broadly Congress's power to make determinations that appear to be substantive decisions with respect to constitutional violations.53 Acting under both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Congress has acted to reach state electoral practices that result in diluting the voting power of minorities, although the Court apparently requires that it be shown that electoral procedures must have been created or maintained with a discriminatory animus before they may be invalidated under the two Amendments.54 Moreover, movements have been initiated in Congress by opponents of certain of the Court's decisions, notably the abortion rulings, to use § 5 powers to curtail the rights the Court has derived from the Due Process Clause and other provisions of the Constitution.55
City of Boerne v. Flores,56 however, illustrates that the Court will not always defer to Congress's determination as to what legislation is appropriate to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Flores, the Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,57 which expressly overturned the Court's narrowing of religious protections under Employment Division v. Smith,58 exceeded congressional power under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the Court allowed that Congress's power to legislate to deter or remedy constitutional violations may include prohibitions on conduct that is not itself unconstitutional, the Court also held that there must be a congruence and proportionality between the means adopted and the injury to be remedied.59
Unlike the pervasive suppression of the African American vote in the South that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there was no similar history of religious persecution constituting an egregious predicate for the far-reaching provision of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Also, unlike the Voting Rights Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act contained no geographic restrictions or termination dates.60
A reinvigorated Eleventh Amendment jurisprudence has led to a spate of decisions applying the principles the Court set forth in Boerne, as litigants precluded from arguing that a state's sovereign immunity has been abrogated under Article I congressional powers61 seek alternative legislative authority in § 5. For instance, in Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Educ. Expense Board v. College Savings Bank,62 a bank that had patented a financial method designed to guarantee investors sufficient funds to cover the costs of college tuition sued the State of Florida for administering a similar program, arguing that the state's sovereign immunity had been abrogated by Congress in exercise of its Fourteenth Amendment enforcement power. The Court, however, held that application of the federal patent law to the states was not properly tailored to remedy or prevent due process violations. The Court noted that Congress had identified no pattern of patent infringement by the states, nor a systematic denial of state remedy for such violations such as would constitute a deprivation of property without due process.63
A similar result was reached regarding the application of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act to state agencies in Kimel v. Florida Bd. of Regents.64 In determining that the Act did not meet the congruence and proportionality test, the Court focused not just on whether state agencies had engaged in age discrimination, but on whether states had engaged in unconstitutional age discrimination. This was a particularly difficult test to meet, as the Court has generally rejected constitutional challenges to age discrimination by states, finding that there is a rational basis for states to use age as a proxy for other qualities, abilities, and characteristics.65 Noting the lack of a sufficient legislative record establishing broad and unconstitutional state discrimination based on age, the Court found that the ADEA, as applied to the states, was so out of proportion to a supposed remedial or preventive object that it cannot be understood as responsive to or designed to prevent unconstitutional behavior.66
Despite what was considered by many to be a better developed legislative record, the Court in Board of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett67 also rejected the recovery of money damages against states, this time under of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).68 Title I of the ADA prohibits employers, including states, from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability69 and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations "[for] . . . physical or mental limitations . . . . unless [to do so]. . . would impose an undue hardship on the . . . business."70
Although the Court had previously overturned discriminatory legislative classifications based on disability in City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center,71 the Court had held that determinations of when states had violated the Equal Protection Clause in such cases were to be made under the relatively deferential standard of rational basis review. Thus, failure of an employer to provide the kind reasonable accommodations required under the ADA would not generally rise to the level of a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and instances of such failures did not qualify as a history and pattern of unconstitutional employment discrimination.72 Thus, according to the Court, not only did the legislative history developed by the Congress not establish a pattern of unconstitutional discrimination against the disabled by states,73 but the requirements of the ADA would be out of proportion to the alleged offenses.
The Court's more recent decisions in this area, however, seem to de-emphasize the need for a substantial legislative record when the class being discriminated against is protected by heightened scrutiny of the government's action. In Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs,74 the Court considered the recovery of monetary damages against states under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This Act provides, among other things, that both male and female employees may take up to twelve weeks of unpaid family care leave to care for a close relative with a serious health condition. Noting that § 5 could be used to justify prophylactic legislation, the Court accepted the argument that the Act was intended to prevent gender-based discrimination in the workplace tracing to the historic stereotype that women are the primary caregivers. Congress had documented historical instances of discrimination against women by state governments and had found that women were provided maternity leave more often than were men.
Although there was a relative absence of proof that states were still engaged in wholesale gender discrimination in employment, the Court distinguished Garrett and Kimel, which had held Congress to a high standard for justifying legislation attempting to remedy classifications subject only to rational basis review. Because the standard for demonstrating the constitutionality of a gender-based classification is "more difficult to meet than our rational basis test . . . it was easier for Congress to show a pattern of state constitutional violations."75 Consequently, the Court upheld an across-the-board, routine employment benefit for all eligible employees as a congruent and proportional response to the state-sanctioned gender stereotypes.
Nine years after Hibbs, the Court returned to the Family and Medical Leave Act, this time to consider the Act's self-care (personal medical) leave provisions. There, in Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Md., a four-Justice plurality, joined by concurring Justice Scalia, found the self-care provisions too attenuated from the gender protective roots of the family care provisions to merit heightened consideration.76 According to the plurality, the self-care provisions were intended to ameliorate discrimination based on illness, not sex. The plurality observed that paid sick leave and disability protection were almost universally available to state employees without intended or incidental gender bias. The addition of unpaid self-care leave to this state benefit might help some women suffering pregnancy-related illness, but the establishment of a broad self-care leave program under the FMLA was not a proportional or congruent remedy to protect any constitutionally based right under the circumstances.77
The Court in Tennessee v. Lane78 held that Congress could authorize damage suits against a state for failing to provide disabled persons physical access to its courts. Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act provides that no qualified person shall be excluded or denied the benefits of a public program by reason of a disability,79 but since disability is not a suspect class, the application of Title II against states would seem questionable under the reasoning of Garrett.80 Here, however, the Court evaluated the case as a limit on access to court proceedings, which, in some instances, has been held to be a fundamental right subject to heightened scrutiny under the Due Process Clause.81
Reviewing the legislative history of the ADA, the Court found that Title II, as applied, was a congruent and proportional response to a Congressional finding of a backdrop of pervasive unequal treatment in the administration of state services and programs, including systematic deprivations of fundamental rights.82 Rather, in an indication of a more robust approach where protection of fundamental rights is at issue, the majority also relied more broadly on a history of state limitations on the rights of the disabled in areas such as marriage or voting, and on limitations of access to public services beyond the use of courts.83
Congress's authority under § 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to abrogate states' Eleventh Amendment immunity is strongest when a state's conduct at issue in a case is alleged to have actually violated a constitutional right. In United States v. Georgia,84 a disabled state prison inmate who used a wheelchair for mobility alleged that his treatment by the State of Georgia and the conditions of his confinement violated, among other things, Title II of the ADA and the Eighth Amendment (as incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment). A unanimous Court found that, to the extent that the prisoner's claims under Title II for money damages were based on conduct that independently violated the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, they could be applied against the state. In doing so, the Court declined to apply the congruent and proportional response test, distinguishing the cases applying that standard (discussed above) as not generally involving allegations of direct constitutional violations.85