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April 4, 2014

Fourteenth Amendment — context for contemporary issue relating to citizenship and voting rights

by profbartling1

The relationship between state citizenship and national citizenship was unclear in the Constitution.  The Fourteenth Amendment in 1868,  contains a “citizenship clause” which establishes the nation as one body of citizens of one nation without question.  The Dred Scott decision of 1857 recognized two classes of citizens – the citizens naturalized by Congress, and whites who were recognized as state citizens.  State citizenship was primary – a state could make persons citizens of a state but not of the United States.  The Fourteenth Amendment altered the control of citizenship in the United States.  To be a citizen of a state an individual need only reside there.  State control over citizenship had ended.

The landmark Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case had held that African-Americans, slave or free, could not be citizens of the United States. Dred Scott was an African-American slave taken by his owners to the free states and Fort Snelling  in the Minnesota Territory. Scott suing for his freedom had his case dismissed.  The court held it had no power to consider slavery in the territories acquired after formation of the United States.  Anti-slavery and abolitionist sentiment and agitation in the free states against the court’s ruling served as catalyst for the Civil War.

The battle over the right to vote is a continuing issue.  The Supreme Court in August of last year invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act of  1965.  Section 4 held that 9 states were covered under laws of “preclearance”. Nine states with a history of discrimination and hindering voting rights had to “preclear” changes in voting laws with the Department of Justice. Six of those nine states immediately began to move forward  with voter restriction laws hindering access to the polls if the voter was without a Voter ID,  or Photo ID.  Such state voting laws have adverse effect virtually disfranchising many of the most vulnerable,  including the poor, elderly,  students, and minorities.  Chief Justice Roberts speaking for the conservative court majority (5-4) stated that the discrimination of 40 years ago are old facts not related to the present  Discrimination has changed dramatically and substantially.  Congress, Roberts suggested, is free to enforce oversight where the right to vote is at risk withy using contemporary data, not forty year-old data.  Such possible action,  however, has small chance with the current Congress.  Whether discrimination has changed “substantially and dramatically ” in the past 40 years is subject to critical evaluation. The struggle for free unhindered access to the voting booth is part of the ongoing struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.

 

 

 

Read more from Professor Bartling

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