Justice Stephen Field's Expansion of the Fourteenth Amendment: From the Safeguards of Federalism to a State of Judicial Hegemony

92 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2008  

Thomas Burrell

Federal Government


The justices of the Supreme Court have given new definition to the old maxim that judges, if given the opportunity, will always construe laws so as to amplify their jurisdiction. This Article discusses how the Court, through its interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, has ignored the intended limitations of the Amendment and crafted precedent which ultimately gives the Court far-reaching jurisdiction over state legislation.

The Framers of our Constitution were worried about excessive centralization in national government. These concerns led to a Constitution with specific limitations and the understanding that the federal powers are enumerated and that the states retain those powers which are not granted to national government. Reconstruction legislation did not intend to change this central principle of federalism.

The end of the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment ended the institution slavery, but failed to provide newly freed slaves with a protected civil status. The 39th Congress, seeking to establish rights for newly freed slaves, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to secure citizenship rights and to expressly overturn the Dred Scott decision. Constitutional complications haunted the Civil Rights Act from the start. Congress sought to remedy the constitutional uncertainty with the Fourteenth Amendment, an Amendment granting Congress the power to enforce state violations of protected civil rights.

In constructing the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment, the Reconstruction Congress debated heavily along the spectrum of civil and social rights. Some argued for broader coverage, but many did not share these radical views. The concept of civil rights was never deemed to be all-inclusive. As a result, both the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment were limited in the scope of federal protection.

Initial judicial interpretation retained the integrity of Reconstruction legislation. Justice Field and fellow justices, however, formed a dissenting non-majority pact. These non-majority opinions would eventually seize the majority and unravel the intended limitations of the Amendment. The evolution of Justice Field's open-ended precedent has resulted in a drastic change in the federal-state balance of power and led to a state of judicial hegemony.

Keywords: Justice Stephen Field, Fourteenth Amendment, Judicial Hegemony

JEL Classification: K40

Suggested Citation

Burrell, Thomas, Justice Stephen Field's Expansion of the Fourteenth Amendment: From the Safeguards of Federalism to a State of Judicial Hegemony. Gonzaga Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2007. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1096360

Thomas Burrell (Contact Author)

Federal Government ( email )

United States

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