Teaching Civic Ideals with Primary Sources: Due Process of Law

This post is by Jen Reidel, the 2019-2020 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

In 1958, President Eisenhower designated May 1 as Law Day to recognize the influence of the rule of law within our government and society. “Equal Justice Under Law” is inscribed above the main entrance of the United States Supreme Court, proclaiming that equality and fairness are bedrock principles of American democracy.

To achieve those goals within our legal system, Americans are guaranteed the right to “due process” in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Ultimately, constitutional due process guarantees mean that individuals are entitled to certain protections and procedures prior to, during, and after trial. Due process rests on the concept that the accused is thought to be innocent until the system proves guilt and does so fairly.  Most students understand fairness from an early age, but due process can be a bit trickier. Use primary sources to facilitate a conversation with students about legal concepts like justice and due process.

To introduce or refresh student understanding, display the text of the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. Brainstorm, from their reading of the amendments, what they think “due process” means.

Due Process of Law. S.D. Ehrhart, 1903

Show students “Due Process of Law” by Samuel Ehrhart published as the cover of the magazine Puck on December 23, 1903. Prompt students with questions from the Analyzing Prints and Photographs Teacher’s Guide in their evaluation of the image.

Focus students on parts of the cartoon as they relate to legal principles. First, direct students to the forefront of the cartoon and ask which element of the image represents the concept of law. They will likely notice a woman blindfolded with the word “law” written on a crown who holds scales. Ask students what they believe the scales represent and how those relate to the image in the background depicting “justice.” Encourage students to consider what each of these symbols may mean in relationship to the law. Most will conclude that the law is slow.

To push students to consider what factors make justice proceed slowly, prompt them to identify the words on the rocks in the cartoon. Assign groups to research legal concepts and current examples of cases demonstrating reasonable doubt, appeals, change of venue, and injunctions. After students have completed research, facilitate a class discussion regarding how each of the researched terms relates to the idea of due process. Expand the conversation further by asking students if justice and due process can be achieved through speedy procedures and systems.

This cartoon was created at a time where some were frustrated at the sluggish pace of the court system. Extend student consideration of due process by researching contemporary cases which have experienced delays because of due process requirements. Encourage students to evaluate the extent to which due process benefits or hinders achieving justice.