Sunday, March 16, 2003

The 14th Amendment

Ohio finally joins the rest of the U.S.


One hundred thirty-five years later, Ohio is finally on board with the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It's about time.

Thursday night, the Ohio House of Representatives voted to endorse the amendment, which gives people born or naturalized in the United States full citizenship rights regardless of race. The amendment also ensures that the law treats people fairly, and it guarantees every American life, liberty and property under the law.

Ohio's resolution is a symbolic measure, but it almost didn't happen.

The 14th Amendment already is law. It was ratified by three-quarters of the states in 1868 - three years after slavery was abolished.

At first Ohio ratified the amendment, but a new statehouse majority that opposed blacks' gaining rights rescinded Ohio's ratification the next year.

Unexpected opposition

That's how it stood, until seven University of Cincinnati College of Law students discovered last year that Ohio was the only state opposing the amendment.

The students convinced State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-Cincinnati) and Speaker Pro Tempore Gary Cates (R-West Chester) to sponsor a joint resolution in early February.

At first things moved quickly. The Senate voted unanimously to ratify, and all the senators became co-sponsors.

But in the House, several conservative lawmakers proposed adding provisos to the resolution, asterisks to ratification, to reflect their political and social views.

They said the 14th Amendment has had a checkered past that they didn't want to be on record as endorsing.

It was instrumental, after all, in Roe vs. Wade, which ensured women's access to abortion.

And it recently was used it to prevent schools from forcing students to say "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Even for liberals, it hasn't always been kind. The 14th Amendment was used in Plessy vs. Ferguson to legalize Jim Crow, though in Brown vs. Board of Education the court struck down state-sponsored segregation.

The U.S. Supreme Court used it to halt the hand count of Florida's ballots in the 2000 presidential election.

Covering bases

State Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) tried to cover many bases with language he proposed adding to Ohio's resolution.

"Resolved that the General Assembly rejects those judicial interpretations of the 14th

Amendment that unreasonably restrict state governments from promoting the free exercise of religion, defending the sanctity of unborn life and ensuring the equitable distribution of educational dollars to aid students enrolled in schools sponsored by religious institutions."

Seitz explained that he was thinking of his constituency. "Nowhere is the Right to Life cause stronger than in Cincinnati,'' he said.

He said he thought that the added language would silence opposition to the amendment. Instead it amplified it. The resolution's sponsors despaired that it might not pass.

Then delays about the vote last week attracted news media interest.

After more debate and on-the-record posturing, the lawmakers, including Seitz, passed the 14th Amendment resolution - unadorned.

"Nobody has a problem with the 14th Amendment as written. Some of us just wanted to use it as a little educational experiment for our members," Seitz said.

The experiment didn't go over too well. Despite its mixed record, the 14th Amendment still deserves unqualified endorsement.

As Gabriel Chin, of UC's law school, put it: "I'm not saying America is perfect. But it's a freer and more just country because of the 14th Amendment."

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