Let us start from the Fundamental Rights Federalism after the civil war. The Republicans in the 38th Congress enacted the 38th Amendment, eliminating the power of states to enforce slavery within their borders. But Southern states almost immediately used the rest of their vast police powers to enact Black Codes to oppress the newly freed slaves. Their aim was to come as closely as possible to restoring slavery in everything but name.
In response to this, the Republicans in the 39th Congress used their 13th Amendment enforcement power to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Although they overrode the veto of President Johnson by super-majorities in both houses, some in Congress saw the need to write these protections into the Constitution lest courts question Congress’s power to enact the Civil Rights Act.
The Republicans thus created the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 1 forbade states from violating the fundamental rights of their own citizens, placing new federal constraints on all three branches of state governments. Section 5 granted Congress the power to enforce those constraints. With the passage of the 14 Amendment, the federal government could now prevent states from violating the privileges and immunities of their citizens; depriving anyone of life, liberty, or property without due process; and denying anyone equal protection. Following on its heels, a similar provision was enacted to prevent states from denying citizens the right to vote based on their race. The Reconstruction Amendments, taken together, thus ushered in what we can call “Fundamental Rights Federalism.”
Soon after its enactment, however, the Supreme Court systematically neutered the Fundamental Rights Federalism of the Reconstruction Amendments through such cases as The Slaughter-House Cases (1873),U.S. v. Cruikshank (1875), The Civil Rights Cases (1883), Plessy v. Ferguson(1896), and Giles v. Harris (1903). As a result, the powers accorded to the federal government lay dormant until the Court and Congress took them up again in the early Twentieth Century to protect economic liberties in cases like Lochner v. New York (1905) andBuchanan v. Warley (1917). Eventually, beginning in the 1930s until today, the Court largely withdrew from this area in favor of to protecting so-called “fundamental rights” and the civil rights of “suspect classes” like racial minorities.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg built her career on the fight for women’s rights. Before her days as a judge, she acted as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she argued over 300 gender discrimination cases—six before the Supreme Court—and cofounded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. As a civilian, Ginsburg earned a reputation as a dogged advocate for gender equality. As a judge, first during 13 years as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, then during 27 years as a Supreme Court Justice, she built upon that legacy.