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Key Supreme Court Cases and the Fourteenth Amendment

Extending the Bill of Rights to the States Through the Fourteenth Amendment

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At the end of the Civil War, there was a concern that states could continue to deny rights to former slaves because the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government. The fourteenth amendment was passed in an attempt to ensure these rights would apply to the states. However, the Supreme Court ruled in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1875) that the provisions of the amendment did not automatically apply to the states. Over the years, the Supreme Court has ruled that individual provisions of the Bill of Rights must be maintained by the states. Following is a sampling of some of the major court cases involved.

1. Gitlow v. New York - Freedom of Speech

Gitlow v. New York was decided in 1925. Gitlow was a socialist who published a pamphlet advocating strikes and and class action. The law in New York stated that he could be punished for advocating the overthrow of the government. However, Gitlow argued that his speech did not result in any adverse actions so he should be protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that, in fact, free speech is protected at the state level due to the due process clause of the amendment. Nonetheless, speech may be prohibited if it meets the "dangerous tendency" test creating a clear and present danger of violent action.

2. Near v. Minnesota - Freedom of the Press

In 1931, the Supreme Court ruled in Near v. Minnesota that prior restraint of the press was not allowed under the First Amendment even at the state level. Jay Near had published a paper which implicated local politicians with gangsters. He was ordered by Minnesota not to continue to publish his paper since it was seen as "malicious, scandalous and defamatory" according to a state statute. The Court said that that only in rare cases could the government censor a publication in advance.

3. Cantwell v. Connecticut - Free Exercise of Religion

In 1940, Jesse Cantwell and his son were Jehovah's Witnesses who were charged with requiring a permit for solicitation and inciting a breach of the peace when their anti-Roman Catholic message resulted in angry reactions from bystanders. The Supreme Court ruled that their speech was protected under the First Amendment rights. Further, the requirements for solicitation permits as written by the local Connecticut statute violated their right to the free exercise of religion.

4. Robinson v. California - Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Lawrence Robinson was arrested under a California statute that made being addicted to a narcotic a crime. The punishment was a minimum of ninety days in jail. He claimed that this was cruel and unusual punishment. On June 25, 1962, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in his favor stating that laws that imprisoned individuals for the status of their addiction which they likened to a illness was in in fact cruel and unusual punishment.

5. Gideon v. Wainwright - Right to Counsel

The Supreme Court decided in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) that Clarence Earl Gideon was wrongly denied the right to a court-appointed defense counsel. Gideon had been arrested and tried for stealing from a local pool hall in Florida. He asked for counsel but was denied this in the court. According to previous Supreme Court cases, the state was only reqwuired to provide counsel to individuals who were arrested for capital offenses. Gideon was then found guilty and sent to prison. He studied law in prison and submitted his own handwritten Writ of Certiorari to the Supreme Court. They found in his favor and when he was retried with benefit of counsel, he won his freedom.

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