Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
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.
In the case in which it was first called upon to interpret this clause, the Court doubted whether this provision could apply to state actions that were not directed at newly freed slaves, arguing that this Amendment was
clearly a provision for that race and intended to remedy discriminatory laws directed at freed slaves.1 Nonetheless, in deciding the Granger Cases shortly thereafter, the Justices, as with the due process clause, seemingly entertained no doubt that the railroad corporations were entitled to invoke the protection of the clause.2 Nine years later, Chief Justice Waite announced from the bench that the Court would not hear argument on the question whether the Equal Protection Clause applied to corporations.
We are all of the opinion that it does.3 The word has been given the broadest possible meaning.
These provisions are universal in their application, to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction, without regard to any differences of race, of color, or of nationality. . . .4 The only qualification is that a municipal corporation cannot invoke the clause against its state.5
Within Its Jurisdiction
within its jurisdiction are entitled to equal protection from a state. Largely because Article IV, § 2, has from the beginning guaranteed the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states, the Court has rarely construed the phrase in relation to natural persons.6 As to business entities, it was first held that a foreign corporation that was not doing business in a state in a manner that subjected it to the process of a state's courts was not
within the jurisdiction of the state and could not complain that resident creditors were given preferences in the distribution of assets of an insolvent corporation.7 This holding was subsequently qualified, however, with the Court holding that a foreign corporation seeking to recover possession of property wrongfully taken in one state, but suing in another state in which it was not licensed to do business, was
within the jurisdiction of the latter state, so that unequal burdens could not be imposed on the maintenance of the suit.8 The test of amenability to service of process within the state was ignored in a later case dealing with discriminatory assessment of property belonging to a nonresident individual.9 On the other hand, if a state has admitted a foreign corporation to do business within its borders, that corporation is entitled to equal protection of the laws, but not necessarily to identical treatment with domestic corporations.10
Police Power Classification
Justice Holmes’ characterization of the Equal Protection Clause as the
usual last refuge of constitutional arguments11 was no doubt made with the practice in mind of contestants tacking on an equal protection argument to a due process challenge of state economic regulation. Few police regulations have been held unconstitutional on this ground.
[T]he Fourteenth Amendment permits the States a wide scope of discretion in enacting laws which affect some groups of citizens differently than others. The constitutional safeguard is offended only if the classification rests on grounds wholly irrelevant to the achievement of the State’s objective. State legislatures are presumed to have acted within their constitutional power despite the fact that, in practice, their laws result in some inequality. A statutory discrimination will not be set aside if any state of facts reasonably may be conceived to justify it.12 The Court has made it clear that only the totally irrational classification in the economic field will be struck down,13 and it has held that legislative classifications that impact severely upon some businesses and quite favorably upon others may be saved through stringent deference to legislative judgment.14 So deferential is the classification that it denies the challenging party any right to offer evidence to seek to prove that the legislature is wrong in its conclusion that its classification will serve the purpose it has in mind, so long as the question is at least debatable and the legislature
could rationally have decided that its classification would foster its goal.15 The Court has condemned a variety of statutory classifications as failing the rational basis test, although some of the cases are of doubtful vitality today and some have been questioned. Thus, the Court invalidated a statute that forbade stock insurance companies to act through agents who were their salaried employees but permitted mutual companies to operate in this manner.16 A law that required private motor vehicle carriers to obtain certificates of convenience and necessity and to furnish security for the protection of the public was held invalid because of the exemption of carriers of fish, farm, and dairy products.17 The same result befell a statute that permitted mill dealers without well-advertised trade names the benefit of a price differential but that restricted this benefit to such dealers entering the business before a certain date.18 In a decision since overruled, the Court struck down a law that exempted by name the American Express Company from the terms pertaining to the licensing, bonding, regulation, and inspection of
currency exchanges engaged in the sale of money orders.19