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The requirement that the government function in accordance with law is, in itself, ample basis for understanding the stress given these words. A commitment to legality is at the heart of all advanced legal systems, and the Due Process Clause is often thought to embody that commitment.
The clause also promises that before depriving a citizen of life, liberty or property, the government must follow fair procedures. Thus, it is not always enough for the government just to act in accordance with whatever law there may happen to be. Citizens may also be entitled to have the government observe or offer fair procedures, whether or not those procedures have been provided for in the law on the basis of which it is acting. Action denying the process that is “due” would be unconstitutional.

The words “due process” suggest a concern with procedure rather than substance, and that is how many—such as Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote “the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause is not a secret repository of substantive guarantees against unfairness”


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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 Constitution states only one command twice. The Fifth Amendment says to the federal government that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, uses the same eleven words, called the Due Process Clause, to describe a legal obligation of all states. These words have as their central promise an assurance that all levels of American government must operate within the law (“legality”) and provide fair procedures. Most of this article concerns that promise. We should briefly note, however, three other uses that these words have had in American constitutional law.


The Fifth Amendment’s reference to “due process” is only one of many promises of protection the Bill of Rights gives citizens against the federal government. Originally these promises had no application at all against the states; the Bill of Rights was interpreted to only apply against the federal government, given the debates surrounding its enactment and the language used elsewhere in the Constitution to limit State power. (see Barron v City of Baltimore (1833)). However, this changed after the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment and a string of Supreme Court cases that began applying the same limitations on the states as the Bill of Rights. Initially, the Supreme Court only piecemeal added Bill of Rights protections against the States, such as in Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company v. City of Chicago (1897) when the court incorporated the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause into the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court saw these protections as a  function of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment only, not because the Fourteenth Amendment made the Bill of Rights apply against the states. Later, in the middle of the Twentieth Century, a series of Supreme Court decisions found that the Due Process Clause “incorporated” most of the important elements of the Bill of Rights and made them applicable to the states. If a Bill of Rights guarantee is “incorporated” in the “due process” requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment, state and federal obligations are exactly the same.


Even when an individual is unmistakably acted against on individual grounds, there can be a question whether the state has “deprive[d]” her of “life, liberty or property.” The first thing to notice here is that there must be state action.


Whether state action against an individual was a deprivation of life, liberty or property was initially resolved by a distinction between “rights” and “privileges.” Process was due if rights were involved, but the state could act as it pleased in relation to privileges. But as modern society developed, it became harder to tell the two apart (ex: whether driver’s licenses, government jobs, and welfare enrollment  are “rights” or a “privilege.” An initial reaction to the increasing dependence of citizens on their government was to look at the seriousness of the impact of government action on an individual, without asking about the nature of the relationship affected. Process was due before the government could take an action that affected a citizen in a grave way.

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      Fairy tales for children. Although some fairy tales have more truth to them.

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