Equal protection of the law refers to the rights of individuals to have equal access to lawyers and the courts, and to be treated equally by the law and the court system in both substantive and procedural laws. Similar to the Due Process Clause, the Equal Protection Clause that found in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that no state be allowed to deny any person equal protection of the laws. The U.S. Constitution maintains that equal treatment is an element of the fundamental fairness in the commitment to enforcing that "all men are created equal."
Simply put, equal protection of the law means that state laws must provide for equal treatment of similarly situated individuals despite racial, gender or other differences. This idea is critical in maintaining civil rights because, without equal protection, states could prohibit people from employment based on skin color, gender, religion or other issues. Minorities could be denied access to the court system when their rights have been violated or to report crimes. By providing access to the law, access to the courts, and equal treatment, the 14th Amendment denies states the ability to discriminate.
The concept is important because it marks a shift in constitutionalism within the judiciary. Before the 14th Amendment's enactment, individual rights were protected from invasion only by the federal government. After its enactment, individuals also were protected from state leaders and governments. This clause extends equal protection to state citizens, but it does not apply to the federal government and grants only equal protection and not equal rights as enforced by the states.
After the Civil War, Congress exercised its authority under Article I, Section 5, Clause 1 of the Constitution to exclude Confederate states from Congress because they rebelled against the Union. In 1865, Congress passed the equal protection clause and made its ratification by former Confederate states a condition of acceptance back into the Union. Although this clause applied only to state governments, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment is generally interpreted to impose the same restrictions upon the federal government.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided a landmark case in 1954 on the subject of equal protection of the law. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal educational facilities that segregated minority students from white students were not truly equal and were unconstitutional because the segregation of black students did not offer them equal rights under the law. Over time, this concept has evolved to include issues such as equal pay for equal work and equality in taxation.
Through the development of applicable case law on the matter, equal protection of the law was not created to guarantee equality of outcome of consequence but to present equal opportunity. The evil this clause seeks to deny is intentional discrimination. The decisions in the cases of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Corporation (1977) and Washington v. Davis (1976) argue that Congress can make additional laws that deny the legality of supporting policies or practices that produce racial disparities as an unintentional consequence. Critics argue that courts should also consider how policies and practices might have a disparate affect.