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Enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments


Alexander Tsesis


May 23, 2021

This Article analyzes the delicate balance of congressional and judicial authority granted by the Reconstruction Amendments. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments vest Congress with powers to enforce civil rights, equal treatment, and civic participation. Their reach extends significantly beyond the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts’ narrow construction of congressional authority. In recent years, the Court has struck down laws that helped secure voter rights, protect religious liberties, and punish age or disability discrimination. Those holdings encroach on the amendments’ allocated powers of enforcement.

Textual, structural, historical, and normative analyses provide profound insights into the appropriate roles of the Supreme Court and Congress in achieving aspirations of the Second Founding. The framework that emerges requires the judiciary to defer to legitimate legislative functions in enforcing racial equality, dignitary justice, and access to the ballot box. Congress’s discretion extends to safeguards for fundamental rights, civil liberties, and political representation. Rational basis review is appropriate when Congress advances autonomy, equality, and franchise. However, when courts safeguard equal enjoyment of fundamental rights against legislative encroachments, those three amendments require heightened judicial scrutiny of adverse state actions.


Alexander Tsesis, Enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments, 78 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 849 (2021)