equal protection | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Procedural Law

In the procedural law context, the equal protection principle is a constitutional guarantee that all individuals are treated equally under the law. It is a fundamental principle of due process, and it is embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The equal protection principle prohibits discrimination by the government on the basis of certain protected characteristics, such as race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability. It ensures that individuals are not treated differently by the government based on these characteristics, and it requires the government to provide a rational basis for any distinctions it makes between individuals.

In the procedural law context, the equal protection principle applies to all aspects of the legal process, including arrest, trial, and sentencing. For example, it prohibits law enforcement officers from selectively enforcing the law based on an individual’s race or ethnicity, it also prohibits the prosecutors from discriminating against defendants based on their race or ethnicity when deciding whether to charge them or offer plea deals.

The courts apply different levels of scrutiny when evaluating the constitutionality of a law or government action based on the type of the discrimination and the affected rights. In general, laws that discriminate on the basis of a suspect class (e.g. race, national origin) or a fundamental right will be subject to strict scrutiny, laws that discriminate on the basis of a quasi-suspect class (e.g. gender) will be subject to intermediate scrutiny and laws that discriminate on any other grounds will be subject to rational basis review.

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Last Modified: 01/09/2023


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