When the courts must decide a case, the meaning of the laws in
question is not always clear. The 14th Amendment, which guarantees
equal protection of the laws, has been particularly difficult to
interpret over the years because of the ambiguous nature of the concept
of equality. Does treating people equally mean treating them exactly the
same? Or are there circumstances when equal treatment sometimes
requires different treatment? The courts have come to different
conclusions at different points in history and in different cases.
For more on interpreting the concept of equality, see Does Treating People Equally Mean Treating Them the Same?
Judges use their reasoning skills to decide what particular laws mean
when they rule on cases. Different judges sometimes use different
reasoning skills to interpret the Constitution, meaning that judges do
not always agree on the meaning of the Constitution. There are six
widely accepted methods of interpretation that shed some light on the
meaning of the Constitution.
A judge looks to the intentions of the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution to shed light on its meaning.
A judge looks to the meaning of the words in the Constitution, relying on common understandings of what the words mean today.
A judge infers structural rules (power relationships between
institutions, for instance) from the relationships specifically outlined
in the Constitution.
A judge applies rules established by precedents.
A judge looks to the moral commitments reflected in the Constitution.
A judge seeks to balance the costs and benefits of a particular ruling.
Keeping these interpretation tools in mind, read the following excerpts from the majority and dissenting opinions in Plessy v. Ferguson.
The majority and dissenting opinions each had different interpretations
of the 14th Amendment. Consider the original wording of the
14th Amendment and determine which method of reasoning
(historical, textual, etc.) was used to reach an opinion. Discuss your
findings with the class and then proceed by answering the questions
following the excerpts.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the
jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State
wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall
abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States;
nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property,
without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its
jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The object of
the [14th] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute
equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it
could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color,
or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a
commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws
permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they
are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the
inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not
universally, recognized as within the competency of the state
legislatures in the exercise of their police power....
[13th, 14th and 15th Amendments] removed the race line
from our governmental systems. They had . . . a common purpose, namely,
to secure 'to a race recently emancipated, a race that through many
generations have been held in slavery, all the civil rights that the
superior race enjoy.'
They declared, in legal effect, this court
has further said, 'that the law in the states shall be the same for the
black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white,
shall stand equal before the laws of the states; and in regard to the
colored race, for whose protection the amendment was primarily designed,
that no discrimination shall be made against them by law because of
'... The words of the amendment, it is true, are
prohibitory, but they contain a necessary implication of a positive
immunity or right, most valuable to the colored race, the right to
exemption from unfriendly legislation against them distinctively as
colored; exemption from legal discriminations, implying inferiority in
civil society, lessening the security of their enjoyment of the rights
which others enjoy; and discriminations which are steps towards reducing
them to the condition of a subject race.'
Questions to Consider
Decide what methods of interpretation are being used in each of the opinions.
What language in each opinion supports your finding of the methods of interpretation being used?
Using the 14th Amendment and the facts in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, give your interpretation of the 14th Amendment as it applies to Plessy. What method of interpretation did you use? Why?
What are the inherent drawbacks to each type of interpretive method?
What are the inherent benefits of each type of interpretive method?
Do you believe the courts should follow only one type of interpretive method? Why or why not?