equal protection | Definition

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

The equal protection principle asserts that all individuals must be treated equally and without discrimination under the law.

The equal protection principle guarantees everyone fair treatment under the law. It’s a cornerstone of our legal process, rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Now, let’s dive deeper into this crucial legal concept.

Equality and the Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment is a powerful piece of our Constitution. It says that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In other words, everyone, regardless of their background or characteristics, deserves fair treatment under the law.

This equal protection principle stands as a shield against discrimination. It ensures that the government can’t treat people differently based on protected characteristics like race, gender, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability. It also demands a valid reason for any distinctions the government makes between people.

Equal Protection Across the Legal Process

Equal protection covers every phase of the legal process. From arrest to trial to sentencing, this principle helps ensure fairness.

Imagine a police officer deciding to enforce a law based on someone’s race or ethnicity. That’s not fair, and it’s not legal. The equal protection principle prohibits this kind of selective enforcement.

Likewise, imagine a prosecutor charging defendants or offering plea deals based on their race or ethnicity. This is also unfair and illegal. The equal protection principle prohibits this kind of discriminatory prosecution.

Different Levels of Scrutiny

But how do courts figure out whether a law or government action respects the equal protection principle? They use different levels of scrutiny based on the type of discrimination and the rights affected.

First, there’s strict scrutiny. This is the highest level of scrutiny, and it’s used when a law discriminates based on a suspect class, such as race or national origin, or infringes upon a fundamental right. Under strict scrutiny, the government must prove that the law or action serves a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

Next, there’s intermediate scrutiny. This is used when a law discriminates based on a quasi-suspect class, like gender. Under intermediate scrutiny, the government must show that the law or action serves an important interest and is substantially related to achieving that interest.

Lastly, there’s a rational basis review. This is the lowest level of scrutiny, and it’s used when a law discriminates on any other grounds. Under rational basis review, the government just has to show that the law or action is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.

Understanding Protected Classes

In the context of U.S. law, protected classes refer to groups of people that are covered under various federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Here are some of the major protected classes:

Race and National Origin

Race refers to a person’s physical characteristics, while national origin refers to the country where a person or their ancestors come from. These categories are protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination based on race or national origin is prohibited in several areas, including employment and education.


The Civil Rights Act also protects against discrimination based on gender. This means that men and women should receive equal treatment in employment, education, and more. Over time, protections for gender have been extended to include discrimination based on pregnancy or sexual harassment.


Religion is another protected class under the Civil Rights Act. This protection covers not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism but also other beliefs that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. The law requires employers, schools, and other institutions to make reasonable accommodations for religious practices.

Sexual Orientation and Disability

The Civil Rights Act doesn’t explicitly mention sexual orientation or disability. However, recent court rulings and interpretations of the law have extended some protections to these groups. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition of sex discrimination in employment also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. As for disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on a person’s physical or mental disability in employment, public accommodations, and other areas.

Each of these protected classes is essential in maintaining fair and equal treatment under the law. They serve as a powerful tool in the fight against discrimination, ensuring that all people, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to live free from unfair treatment.

Law Enforcement Practices

Over the years, several court cases have applied the equal protection principle to law enforcement practices, setting important precedents.

Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886)

One of the earliest cases was Yick Wo v. Hopkins in 1886. This case involved a San Francisco law about laundries in wooden buildings. It was applied in a way that discriminated against Chinese laundry owners. The Supreme Court ruled that this was a violation of the equal protection clause, even though the law itself did not explicitly mention race. This landmark ruling established that even if a law appears neutral on its face, it violates equal protection if it is applied in a discriminatory manner.

Whren v. United States (1996)

Fast-forward a century, the Whren v. United States case addressed racial profiling in law enforcement. In this case, plainclothes policemen stopped a vehicle for traffic violations, which they used as a pretext to investigate suspected drug activity. The defendants, who were African-American, argued that they were stopped due to their race, not for the stated traffic violations. The Supreme Court ruled that any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop, regardless of the officer’s subjective intent, marking a controversial decision that sparked a national debate on racial profiling.

Floyd v. City of New York (2013)

This case challenged the New York City Police Department’s practice of stop-and-frisk. The plaintiffs argued that this practice disproportionately targeted Black and Hispanic individuals. The court ruled that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause due to its discriminatory impact.

These cases underscore the importance of the equal protection principle in law enforcement practices. They illustrate how this principle can serve as a check against discriminatory practices, promoting fairness and justice in our legal system.

The Impact of Equal Protection

The equal protection principle plays a vital role in our legal system. It helps ensure that everyone is treated fairly, regardless of their background or characteristics. It guards against discriminatory law enforcement and prosecution. And it forces the government to justify any distinctions it makes between people.

This principle helps uphold the idea that all people are created equal. It stands against discrimination and promotes fairness and justice. By applying different levels of scrutiny, the courts make sure that every law and government action respects this principle.

But equal protection is more than just a legal concept. It’s a fundamental part of our society’s commitment to fairness and equality. It reflects our belief that everyone deserves equal treatment, and it helps us strive toward a society where everyone is judged not by their race, gender, or other protected characteristics but by their actions and their character.

In the end, the equal protection principle is about more than just treating people the same. It’s about recognizing and respecting our shared humanity. It’s about creating a society where everyone has the same opportunities to succeed. And it’s about ensuring that our legal system upholds these values and treats everyone with fairness and dignity.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/18/2023


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