Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

The Fifth Amendment

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The Fifth Amendment, as part of the Bill of Rights, was added to our Constitution on December 15, 1791. It covers basic legal rights—grand jury—double jeopardy—self-incrimination—due process—and eminent domain. When read in context with three other amendments (4th, 6th and 14th) it defines much of what we call The Rule of Law today. The rule of law is the opposite of the rule of power. It stands for the supremacy of law over the supremacy of individual will.

The Rule of Law is vital in democratic countries where citizens choose their leaders. That is how they give their voice in legislation. In other countries, dictators rule—the entire power resides in the hand of a single person. The American Rule of Law, under the Bill of Rights upholds democracy and resists autocracy. In autocratic regimes, supreme political power is concentrated in the hands of one person, duly elected, but nevertheless acting above the law while in office. The Rule of Law resists dictatorships, autocracies, and claims of unlimited power by elected leaders who claim they are above the law. Some elected leaders don’t claim to be above the law, but they act that way by strong-arming a political party. They say they can’t be tried for crimes while in office and deny what they do is a crime. It’s their way around the Rule of Law. They don’t ignore it; they just don’t abide by it.

The Sixth Amendment

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

The Sixth Amendment was part of the Bill of Rights added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791. The Bill of Rights contains some of the most vital and important freedoms guaranteed to U.S. citizens. The Sixth Amendment insures citizens get a fair, speedy, public trial before an impartial jury, a notice of accusation, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to a lawyer. It is applicable only in criminal cases. The Supreme Court has applied the protections of the Sixth Amendment to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The best way to understand the Sixth Amendment is to read Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 US 335 (1963). This case established the legal requirement that state courts are constitutionally required to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford an attorney. Prior to Gideon, our Supreme Court had decided several other cases relating to the right of counsel in capital cases. Gideon extended the right to counsel to non-capital cases as well.

The Fourteenth Amendment

Congress passed the 14th Amendment June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868. It changed a portion of Article I, Section 2, by establishing the legality and legal consequences of four vital issues: (1) Citizenship Rights. (2) Equal Protection of the Laws. (3) Apportionment. (4) Civil War Debt. Today’s Rule of Law is informed by two aspects of the 14th Amendment—citizenship rights and equal protection rights.

“Amendment XIV. Section 1. 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 Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause requires the federal government to practice equal protection. The Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause requires states to practice equal protection. Equal protection forces a state to govern impartially—not draw distinctions between individuals solely on differences irrelevant to a legitimate governmental objective.

Equal protection of the law is a legal principle controlling government action. Under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, a governmental body may not deny people equal protection of its governing laws. The governing body must treat an individual like others in similar conditions and circumstances. However, the 14th Amendment does not prohibit “permissible discrimination.” Government may discriminate against individuals, as long as the discrimination satisfies certain equal protection legal analysis, well beyond the simple explanation offered here.