Due process is the principle that the government must respect all of the legal rights that are owed to a person according to the law. Due process holds the government subservient to the law of the land, protecting individual persons from the state.
Due process has also been frequently interpreted as placing limitations on laws and legal proceedings, in order for judges instead of legislators to define and guarantee fundamental fairness, justice, and liberty. This interpretation has often proven controversial, and is analogous to the concepts of natural justice, and procedural justice used in various other jurisdictions. It is also stated that the government shall not be unfair to the people.
In clause 39 of the Magna Carta, John of England promised as follows: "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land." Magna Carta itself immediately became part of the "law of the land", and Clause 61 of that great charter authorized an elected body of twenty-five barons to determine by majority vote what redress the King must provide when the King offends "in any respect against any man." Thus, Magna Carta established the rule of law in England by not only requiring the monarchy to obey the law of the land, but also limiting how the monarchy could change the law of the land. It should be noted, however, that in the thirteenth century these provisions may have been referring only to the rights of landowners, and not to ordinary peasantry or villagers.
Shorter versions of Magna Carta were subsequently issued by British monarchs, and Clause 39 of Magna Carta was renumbered "29." The phrase due process of law first appeared in a statutory rendition of Magna Carta in A.D. 1354 during the reign of Edward III of England, as follows: "No man of what state or condition he be, shall be put out of his lands or tenements nor taken, nor disinherited, nor put to death, without he be brought to answer by due process of law."
In 1608, the English jurist Edward Coke wrote a treatise in which he discussed the meaning of Magna Carta. Coke explained that no man shall be deprived but by legem terrae, the law of the land, "that is, by the common law, statute law, or custom of England.... (that is, to speak it once and for all) by the due course, and process of law.."
Both the clause in Magna Carta and the later statute of 1354 were again explained in 1704 (during the reign of Queen Anne) by the Queen's Bench, in the case of Regina v. Paty. In that case, the House of Commons had deprived John Paty and certain other citizens of the right to vote in an election, and had committed them to Newgate Prison merely for the offense of pursuing a legal action in the courts. The Queen's Bench, in an opinion by Justice Powys, explained the meaning of "due process of law" as follows:
[I]t is objected, that by Mag. Chart. c. 29, no man ought to be taken or imprisoned, but by the law of the land. But to this I answer, that lex terrae is not confined to the common law, but takes in all the other laws, which are in force in this realm; as the civil and canon law.... By the 28 Ed. 3, c. 3, there the words lex terrae, which are used in Mag. Char. are explained by the words, due process of law; and the meaning of the statute is, that all commitments must be by a legal authority.
Chief Justice Holt dissented in this case, because he believed that the commitment had not in fact been by a legal authority. The House of Commons had purported to legislate unilaterally, without approval of the House of Lords, ostensibly in order to regulate the election of its members. Although the Queen's Bench held that the House of Commons had not infringed or overturned due process, John Paty was ultimately freed by Queen Anne when she prorogued Parliament.
Throughout centuries of British history, many laws and treatises asserted various requirements as being part of "due process" or included in the "law of the land". This view usually held in regards to what was required by existing law, rather than what was intrinsically required by due process itself. As the U.S. Supreme Court has explained, a due process requirement in Britain was not "essential to the idea of due process of law in the prosecution and punishment of crimes, but was only mentioned as an example and illustration of due process of law as it actually existed in cases in which it was customarily used."
Ultimately, the scattered references to "due process of law" in English law did not limit the power of the government; about this, American law professor John Orth wrote that "the great phrases failed to retain their vitality." Orth points out that this is generally attributed to the rise of the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy in the United Kingdom, which was accompanied by hostility towards judicial review as an undemocratic foreign invention.
Scholars have occasionally interpreted Lord Coke's ruling in Dr. Bonham's Case as implying the possibility of judicial review, but by the 1870s, Lord Campbell was dismissing judicial review as "a foolish doctrine alleged to have been laid down extra-judicially in Dr. Bonham's Case..., a conundrum [that] ought to have been laughed at." Lacking the power of judicial review, English courts possessed no means by which to declare government statutes or acts invalid as a violation of due process. As a consequence, English law and American law diverged, with American legislators possessing no means by which to declare judicial invalidation of statutes incorrect (with the sole exception of proposing a constitutional amendment, which are rarely successful). In 1977, an English political science professor explained the present situation in England for the benefit of American lawyers:
|“||An American constitutional lawyer might well be surprised by the elusiveness of references to the term 'due process of law' in the general body of English legal writing... Today one finds no space devoted to due process in Halsbury's Laws of England, in Stephen's Commentaries, or Anson's Law and Custom of the Constitution. The phrase rates no entry in such works as Stroud's Judicial Dictionary or Wharton's Law Lexicon.||”|
Two similar concepts in contemporary English law are natural justice (which generally applies only to decisions of administrative agencies and some types of private bodies like trade unions) and the British constitutional concept of the rule of law as articulated by A. V. Dicey and others. However, neither concept lines up perfectly with the American conception of due process, which, as explained below, presently contains many implied rights not found in the ancient or modern concepts of due process in England.
In the early years of the United States the terms law of the land and due process were used somewhat interchangeably. The 1776 Constitution of Maryland, for example, used the language of Magna Carta, including the law of the land phrase. In New York, a statutory bill of rights was enacted in 1787, and it contained four different due process clauses. Alexander Hamilton commented on the language of that New York bill of rights: "The words 'due process' have a precise technical import...."
New York was the only state that asked Congress to add "due process" language to the U.S. Constitution. New York ratified the U.S. Constitution and proposed the following amendment in 1788: "[N]o Person ought to be taken imprisoned or disseised of his freehold, or be exiled or deprived of his Privileges, Franchises, Life, Liberty or Property but by due process of Law."
In response to this proposal from New York, James Madison drafted a Due Process Clause for Congress. Madison cut out some language, and inserted the word without, which had not been proposed by New York. Congress then adopted the exact wording that Madison proposed, after Madison explained that the Due Process Clause would not be sufficient to protect various other rights:
Although I know whenever the great rights, the trial by jury, freedom of the press, or liberty of conscience, come in question in that body [Parliament], the invasion of them is resisted by able advocates, yet their Magna Charta does not contain any one provision for the security of those rights, respecting which the people of America are most alarmed.
No state or federal constitution in the U.S. had ever before utilized any "due process" wording, prior to 1791 when the federal Bill of Rights was ratified. However when the U.S. Constitution took effect in 1789 it contained a Supremacy Clause, which specified that the Constitution itself, and federal statutes enacted pursuant to the Constitution, would be the supreme "law of the land". As mentioned, in the early United States, the terms law of the land and due process were used somewhat interchangeably.
Various countries recognize some form of due process under customary international law. Although the specifics are often unclear, most nations agree that they should guarantee foreign visitors a basic minimum level of justice and fairness. Some nations have argued that they are bound to grant no more rights to aliens than they do to their own citizens—the doctrine of national treatment—which also means that both would be vulnerable to the same deprivations by the government. With the growth of international human rights law and the frequent use of treaties to govern treatment of foreign nationals abroad, the distinction in practice between these two perspectives may be disappearing.
The Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process is applicable only to actions of the federal government. The Fourteenth Amendment contains virtually the same phrase, but expressly applies to the states. Therefore, those two clauses only apply against state actors, and not against private citizens. The Supreme Court has interpreted those two clauses identically, as Justice Felix Frankfurter once explained in a concurring opinion: “To suppose that ‘due process of law’ meant one thing in the Fifth Amendment and another in the Fourteenth is too frivolous to require elaborate rejection.”
The due process clauses apply to "legal persons" (that is, corporate personhood) as well as to individuals. Many state constitutions also have their own guarantees of due process (or the equivalent) that may, by their own terms or by the interpretation of that State's judiciary, extend even more protection to certain individuals than under federal law.
Due process also applies to the creation of taxing districts, as taxation is a deprivation of property. Due process typically requires public hearings prior to the creation of a taxing district. 
Due process under the U.S. Constitution not only restrains the executive and judicial branches, but additionally restrains the legislative branch. For example, as long ago as 1855, the Supreme Court explained that, in order to ascertain whether a process is due process, the first step is to “examine the constitution itself, to see whether this process be in conflict with any of its provisions....”
In case a person is deprived of liberty by a process that conflicts with some provision of the Constitution, then the Due Process Clause normally prescribes the remedy: restoration of that person's liberty. The Supreme Court held in 1967 that “we cannot leave to the States the formulation of the authoritative ... remedies designed to protect people from infractions by the States of federally guaranteed rights.”
As a limitation on Congress, the Due Process Clause has been interpreted by the Supreme Court not only as a remedial requirement when other constitutional rights have been violated, but furthermore as having additional "procedural" and "substantive" components, meaning that the Clause purportedly imposes unenumerated restrictions on legal procedures—the ways in which laws may operate—and also on legal substance—what laws may attempt to do or prohibit. This theory of unenumerated rights is controversial. For example, Justice Clarence Thomas stated as follows, in a 2004 dissent:
As an initial matter, it is possible that the Due Process Clause requires only “that our Government must proceed according to the ‘law of the land’—that is, according to written constitutional and statutory provisions.” In re Winship, , (Black, J., dissenting).
Despite the objections of people like Justice Hugo Black in Winship, the courts have attempted to extract unwritten requirements from the Due Process Clause, regarding both procedure as well as substance. The distinction between substance and procedure is difficult in both theory and practice to establish. Moreover, the substantive component of due process has proven to be even more controversial than the procedural component, because it gives the Court considerable power to strike down state and federal statutes that criminalize various activities.
By the middle of the 19th century, "due process of law" was interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court to mean that “it was not left to the legislative power to enact any process which might be devised. The [due process] article is a restraint on the legislative as well as on the executive and judicial powers of the government, and cannot be so construed as to leave Congress free to make any process ‘due process of law’ by its mere will.” But determining what those restraints are has been a subject of considerable disagreement.
In the United States, criminal prosecutions and civil cases are generally governed by explicit guarantees of procedural rights under the Bill of Rights. Most of these rights have been incorporated under the Fourteenth Amendment to the States. Among those rights is the constitutional right to procedural due process, which has been broadly construed to protect the individual so that statutes, regulations, and enforcement actions must ensure that no one is deprived of "life, liberty, or property" without a fair opportunity to affect the judgment or result.
This protection extends to all government proceedings that can result in an individual's deprivation, whether civil or criminal in nature, from parole violation hearings to administrative hearings regarding government benefits and entitlements to full-blown criminal trials. In criminal cases, many of these due process protections overlap with procedural protections provided by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees reliable procedures that protect innocent people from being executed, which would be tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.
At a basic level, procedural due process is essentially based on the concept of "fundamental fairness." For example, in 1934, the United States Supreme Court held that due process is violated "if a practice or rule offends some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental". As construed by the courts, it includes an individual's right to be adequately notified of charges or proceedings, the opportunity to be heard at these proceedings, and that the person or panel making the final decision over the proceedings be impartial in regards to the matter before them.
Or, to put it more simply, where an individual is facing a (1) deprivation of (2) life, liberty, or property, (3) procedural due process mandates that he or she is entitled to adequate notice, a hearing, and a neutral judge.
The Supreme Court has formulated a balancing test to determine the rigor with which the requirements of procedural due process should be applied to a particular deprivation, for the obvious reason that mandating such requirements in the most expansive way for even the most minor deprivations would bring the machinery of government to a halt. The Court set out the test as follows: "[I]dentification of the specific dictates of due process generally requires consideration of three distinct factors: first, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and, finally, the Government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail."
Procedural due process has also been an important factor in the development of the law of personal jurisdiction, in the sense that it is inherently unfair for the judicial machinery of a state to take away the property of a person who has no connection to it whatsoever. A significant portion of U.S. constitutional law is therefore directed to what kinds of connections to a state are enough for that state's assertion of jurisdiction over a nonresident to comport with procedural due process.
The requirement of a neutral judge has introduced a constitutional dimension into the question of whether a judge should recuse himself or herself from a case. Specifically, the Supreme Court has ruled that in certain circumstances, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a judge to recuse himself on account of a potential or actual conflict of interest. For example, on June 8, 2009, in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. (2009), the Court ruled that a justice of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia could not participate in a case involving a major donor to his election to that court.
The term "substantive due process" (SDP), is commonly used in two ways: first to identify a particular line of cases, and second to signify a particular attitude toward judicial review under the Due Process Clause. The term "substantive due process" began to take form in 1930s legal casebooks as a categorical distinction of selected due process cases, and by 1950 had been mentioned twice in Supreme Court opinions. SDP involves liberty-based due process challenges which seek certain outcomes instead of merely contesting procedures and their effects; in such cases, the Supreme Court recognizes a constitutionally-based "liberty" which then renders laws seeking to limit said "liberty" either unenforceable or limited in scope. Critics of SDP decisions typically assert that those liberties ought to be left to the more politically accountable branches of government.
Courts have viewed the Due Process Clause, and sometimes other clauses of the Constitution, as embracing those fundamental rights that are “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Just what those rights are is not always clear, nor is the Supreme Court's authority to enforce such unenumerated rights clear. Some of those rights have long histories or “are deeply rooted” in American society.
The courts have largely abandoned the Lochner era approach (ca. 1897-1937) when substantive due process was used to strike down minimum wage and labor laws in order to protect freedom of contract. Since then, the Supreme Court has decided that numerous other freedoms that do not appear in the plain text of the Constitution are nevertheless protected by the Constitution. If these rights were not protected by the federal courts' doctrine of substantive due process, they could nevertheless be protected in other ways; for example, it is possible that some of these rights could be protected by other provisions of the state or federal constitutions, and alternatively they could be protected by legislatures.
Today, the Court focuses on three types of rights under substantive due process in the Fourteenth Amendment, which originated in United States v. Carolene Products Co., , footnote 4. Those three types of rights are:
The Court usually looks first to see if there is a fundamental right, by examining if the right can be found deeply rooted in American history and traditions. Where the right is not a fundamental right, the court applies a rational basis test: if the violation of the right can be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose, then the law is held valid. If the court establishes that the right being violated is a fundamental right, it applies strict scrutiny. This test inquires into whether there is a compelling state interest being furthered by the violation of the right, and whether the law in question is narrowly tailored to address the state interest.
Privacy, which is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, was at issue in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), wherein the Court held that criminal prohibition of contraceptive devices for married couples violated federal, judicially enforceable privacy rights. The right to contraceptives was found in what the Court called the "penumbras", or shadowy edges, of certain amendments that arguably refer to certain privacy rights. The penumbra-based rationale of Griswold has since been discarded; the Supreme Court now uses the Due Process Clause as a basis for various unenumerated privacy rights. Although it has never been the majority view, some have argued that the Ninth Amendment (addressing unenumerated rights) could be used as a source of fundamental judicially enforceable rights, including a general right to privacy, as discussed by Justice Goldberg concurring in Griswold.
Critics of substantive due process claim that the doctrine began, at the federal level, with the infamous 1857 slavery case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Advocates of substantive due process acknowledge that the doctrine was employed in Dred Scott, but claim that it was employed incorrectly. Chief Justice Taney was not entirely breaking ground in his Dred Scott opinion when, without elaboration, he pronounced the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because an "act of Congress that deprived a citizen of his liberty or property merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular territory of the United States, and who had committed no offence against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law." Dissenting Justice Curtis disagreed with Taney about what "due process" meant in Dred Scott.
Criticisms of the doctrine continue as in the past. Critics argue that judges are making determinations of policy and morality that properly belong with legislators (i.e. "legislating from the bench"), or argue that judges are reading views into the Constitution that are not really implied by the document, or argue that judges are claiming power to expand the liberty of some people at the expense of other people's liberty (e.g. as in the Dred Scott case), or argue that judges are addressing substance instead of process.
I have not yet adequately expressed the more than anxiety that I feel at the ever increasing scope given to the Fourteenth Amendment in cutting down what I believe to be the constitutional rights of the States. As the decisions now stand, I see hardly any limit but the sky to the invalidating of those rights if they happen to strike a majority of this Court as for any reason undesirable. I cannot believe that the Amendment was intended to give us carte blanche to embody our economic or moral beliefs in its prohibitions. Yet I can think of no narrower reason that seems to me to justify the present and the earlier decisions to which I have referred. Of course the words due process of law, if taken in their literal meaning, have no application to this case; and while it is too late to deny that they have been given a much more extended and artificial signification, still we ought to remember the great caution shown by the Constitution in limiting the power of the States, and should be slow to construe the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment as committing to the Court, with no guide but the Court's own discretion, the validity of whatever laws the States may pass.
Originalists, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who rejects substantive due process doctrine, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who has also questioned the legitimacy of the doctrine, call substantive due process a "judicial usurpation" or an "oxymoron." Both Scalia and Thomas have occasionally joined Court opinions that mention the doctrine, and have in their dissents often argued over how substantive due process should be employed based on Court precedent.
Many non-originalists, like Justice Byron White, have also been critical of substantive due process. As propounded in his dissents in Moore v. East Cleveland and Roe v. Wade, as well as his majority opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick, White argued that the doctrine of substantive due process gives the judiciary too much power over the governance of the nation and takes away such power from the elected branches of government. He argued that the fact that the Court has created new substantive rights in the past should not lead it to "repeat the process at will." In his book Democracy and Distrust, non-originalist John Hart Ely criticized "substantive due process" as a glaring non-sequitur. Ely argued the phrase was a contradiction-in-terms, like the phrase green pastel redness.
Originalism is usually linked to opposition against substantive due process rights, and the reasons for that can be found in the following explanation that was endorsed unanimously by the Supreme Court in a 1985 case: "[W]e must always bear in mind that the substantive content of the [Due Process] Clause is suggested neither by its language nor by preconstitutional history; that content is nothing more than the accumulated product of judicial interpretation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments."
Originalists do not necessarily oppose protection of the rights heretofore protected using substantive due process, and instead most originalists believe that such rights should be identified and protected legislatively, or via further constitutional amendments, or via other existing provisions of the Constitution.
The perceived scope of the Due Process Clause was originally different than it is today. For instance, even though many of the Framers of the Bill of Rights believed that slavery violated the fundamental natural rights of African-Americans, a "theory that declared slavery to be a violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.... requires nothing more than a suspension of reason concerning the origin, intent, and past interpretation of the clause."
When a law or other act of government is challenged as a violation of individual liberty under the Due Process Clause, courts nowadays primarily use two forms of scrutiny, or judicial review. This inquiry balances the importance of the governmental interest being served and the appropriateness of the government's method of implementation against the resulting infringement of individual rights. If the governmental action infringes upon a fundamental right, the highest level of review—strict scrutiny—is used. In order to pass strict scrutiny review, the law or act must be narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest.
When the governmental restriction restricts liberty in a manner that does not implicate a fundamental right, rational basis review is used. Here a legitimate government interest is enough to pass this review. There is also a middle level of scrutiny, called intermediate scrutiny, but it is primarily used in Equal Protection cases rather than in Due Process cases: “The standards of intermediate scrutiny have yet to make an appearance in a due process case.”
Incorporation is the legal doctrine by which the Bill of Rights, either in full or in part, is applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. The basis for incorporation is substantive due process regarding substantive rights enumerated elsewhere in the Constitution, and procedural due process regarding procedural rights enumerated elsewhere in the Constitution.
Incorporation started in 1897 with a takings case, continued with Gitlow v. New York (1925) which was a First Amendment case, and accelerated in the 1940s and 1950s. Justice Hugo Black famously favored the jot-for-jot incorporation of the entire Bill of Rights. Justice Felix Frankfurter, however—joined later by Justice John M. Harlan—felt that the federal courts should only apply those sections of the Bill of Rights that were "fundamental to a scheme of ordered liberty." It was the latter course that the Warren Court of the 1960s took, although, almost all of the Bill of Rights has now been incorporated jot-for-jot against the states.
The role of the incorporation doctrine in applying the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to the states is just as notable as the use of due process to define new fundamental rights that are not explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution's text. In both cases, the question has been whether the right asserted is "fundamental", so that, just as not all proposed "new" constitutional rights are afforded judicial recognition, not all provisions of the Bill of Rights have been deemed sufficiently fundamental to warrant enforcement against the states.
Some people, such as Justice Black, have argued that the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment would be a more appropriate textual source for the incorporation doctrine. The Court has not taken that course, and some point to the treatment given to the Privileges or Immunities Clause in the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases as a reason why. Although, the Slaughter-House Court did not expressly preclude application of the Bill of Rights to the states, the Clause largely ceased to be invoked in opinions of the Court following the Slaughter-House Cases, and when incorporation did begin, it was under the rubric of due process. Scholars who share Justice Black's view, such as Akhil Amar, argue that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, like Senator Jacob Howard and Congressman John Bingham, included a Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment for the following reason: "By incorporating the rights of the Fifth Amendment, the privileges or immunities clause would...have prevented states from depriving 'citizens' of due process. Bingham, Howard, and company wanted to go even further by extending the benefits of state due process to aliens."
The Supreme Court has consistently held that Fifth Amendment due process means substantially the same as Fourteenth Amendment due process, and therefore the original meaning of the former is relevant to the incorporation doctrine of the latter. When the Bill of Rights was originally proposed by Congress in 1789 to the states, various substantive and procedural rights were "classed according to their affinity to each other" instead of being submitted to the states "as a single act to be adopted or rejected in the gross," as James Madison put it. Roger Sherman explained in 1789 that each amendment "may be passed upon distinctly by the States, and any one that is adopted by three fourths of the legislatures may become a part of the Constitution." Thus, the states were allowed to reject the Sixth Amendment, for example, while ratifying all of the other amendments including the Due Process Clause; in that case, the rights in the Sixth Amendment would not have been incorporated against the federal government. The doctrine of incorporating the content of other amendments into “due process” was thus an innovation, when it began in 1925 with the Gitlow case, and this doctrine remains controversial today.