General Law and the Fourteenth Amendment
66 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2023
Date Written: October 17, 2023
The Fourteenth Amendment’s Section One is central to our constitutional law. Yet its underlying principles remain surprisingly obscure. Its drafting history seems filled with contradictions, and there is no scholarly consensus on what rights it protects, or even on what kind of law defines those rights.
This Article presents a new lens through which to read the Fourteenth Amendment—new to modern lawyers, but not to the Amendment’s drafters. That lens is general law, the unwritten law that was taken to be common throughout the nation rather than produced by any particular state. Though later disparaged in the era of Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, general law was legal orthodoxy when the Amendment was written.
To those who created the Fourteenth Amendment, general law supplied the fundamental rights that Section One secured. On this view, while Section One identified the citizens of the United States, it did not confer new rights of citizenship. Instead, it secured preexisting rights—rights already thought to circumscribe state power—by partially shifting their enforcement and protection from state courts and legislatures to federal courts and Congress. This general-law understanding makes more sense of the historical record than existing theories, which consider the Fourteenth Amendment solely in terms of federal or state law. And it has significant implications for modern Fourteenth Amendment doctrine, from state action to civic equality to “incorporation” to “substantive due process.”
Keywords: Fourteenth Amendment, Privileges or Immunities, general law, fundamental rights, Erie, citizenship, constitutional law
JEL Classification: K1, K10, K19, K3, K30, K39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation