Statue of Lady Justice at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland

Where Do Civil Rights Come From?

Civil rights are a cornerstone of American democracy.

At the most basic level civil rights protect individuals from discrimination. When a person or agency violates these rights they can be subject to legal proceedings. However, due to the expansive nature of these rights it can be hard to determine when they apply. For example, the constitutional prohibition against excessive bail is often overlooked and misunderstood. To understand the 8th Amendment and other civil rights it is best to review their how they are created.

A Brief Look at Civil Rights History

Civil rights are most commonly associated with the “Civil Rights Movement.” Originally the term was applied to the social movement that sought equality for African-American citizens. The Civil Rights Movement occurred from 1954 to 1968. The movement itself is credited with bringing national attention to civil rights and helping to establish many of the rights enjoyed today. In modern times the term is synonymous with all efforts to obtain equal rights and opportunities in society.

A Right Many Take for Granted: The Eighth Amendment

The often cited 8th Amendment prohibits excessive bail in criminal cases. Although there is not an absolute right to be granted bail when it is imposed it must be reasonable. Bail is not to act as a punishment or undue financial obligation. The prohibition against excessive bail is intended to prevent discrimination against the poor. As such, courts are careful to set bail at justifiable amounts in order to preserve the rights of criminal defendants.

In modern times bail is made available at different stages of a criminal prosecution. Bail may be set at the pre-trial stage, while waiting for the imposition of a sentence or during the appeal process. The bail process is frequently supported by a licensed bail bonds agent. These agents help ensure that defendants are able to provide the court with the required bail amount. To do so, agents enter into a contract with criminal defendants. In most states the defendant will pay 10% of the total bail amount to the agent in exchange for a “bond” that will secure his or her release from jail.

The Legal Basis for Other Civil Rights

The large majority of civil rights originate from federal legislation. Some were also initiated by landmark legal cases that resulted in binding case law. Finally, at the local level states and cities enact laws and regulations to support civil rights.

Sources in Federal Law

Perhaps the most well-known piece of legislation in this area is the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At the time this was a novel piece of legislation. It is responsible for applying civil rights concepts to several aspects of society such as public employment, education, public accommodations, and voting. Title III of the act made it illegal to discriminate in granting access to public lands. Title IV prompted the desegregation of public schools. Title VII made it illegal to engage in employment discrimination. Title I deals with discriminatory voting requirements. The remaining articles discuss other types of prohibited discrimination.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act was created in 1967. This act provided protection for those seeking employment. Employers are prohibited from using race or national origin in hiring decisions or from segregating employees in any way. Furthermore, this act makes promotes fair pay by prohibiting wage discrimination.

The equal right to vote came into place with the the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 4 of the act had a provision prohibiting the states from modifying voting rules in geographical areas historically affected by discrimination. The act required federal clearance before making changes and empowered the federal government to oversee the voting process. Section 4 was most recently addressed in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court held that the provision requiring federal permission prior to voting law changes was no longer necessary. However, the Supreme Court’s decision makes it possible for Congress to revive the provision through legislation.

One final federal law that has landmark status is the Americans with Disabilities Act. This act, known as the ADA, makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of a disability. It defines disability as a condition that affects major life activities. Many different conditions fall under the umbrella definition of the term. Title III of the act requires equal access to public areas. The public accommodations section can be enforced through the Department of Justice or by a private, civil lawsuit.

Case Law’s Effect on Civil Rights

Civil rights law is also fashioned by the courts. Think of the seminal case: Brown v. Board of Education. This case changed the landscape of civil rights by desegregating public schools. Overall, the state and federal courts play a major role in determining how civil rights are applied.

Summarizing Civil Rights in America

Civil rights are constantly evolving. Although much of the original focus was on racial discrimination the law has addressed sexual harassment, affirmative action and sexual orientation issues. As new situations arise the sources of civil rights law will continue to create appropriate remedies.

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