One less well-known aspect of the Fourteenth Amendment’s role in American law is how the Supreme Court, over time, understood it to mean that states must also give people the protections found in the Bill of Rights. Before the amendment’s adoption, those protections — like the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against inflicting “cruel and unusual” punishments — only applied to the federal government.
But the Fourteenth Amendment changed the landscape. Since the amendment’s text prevented states from denying the people “due process of law,” the Supreme Court also interpreted that to mean states couldn’t strip people of other important constitutional rights, such as freedom of speech (1st Amendment) or the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures (4th Amendment). One by one, as cases came before it, the high court relied on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to “incorporate” the different parts of the Bill of Rights to the states.
The process of incorporation took time. To this day, not every portion of the Bill of Rights has been recognized as binding states and local governments. But even slow progress proved critical in the struggle for racial equality — especially in a recalcitrant South that continued to criminalized African Americans without providing them a fair opportunity to be heard, let alone to prove their innocence. The Fourteenth Amendment leveled the playing field, making clear that states cannot deprive any person of their constitutional rights without giving that person a meaningful opportunity to fight for them.