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Human Rights Law Research Guide: United States

US Federal Human Rights Legislative Framework

Human rights are legislatively protected in the United States at the Federal level by the Constitution and other federal legislation.

THE CONSTITUTION

The Constitution recognises a number of inalienable human rights, including freedom of speechfreedom of assemblyfreedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to a fair and speedy trial by jury.

The original text of Constitution of the United States (1788) contained eg: the right to trial by jury (Article III, s 2).

  • This version is the authenticated and current text (including amendments) on the GPO website.
  • See a useful version of the Constitution (including amendments) on the US Senate website, which includes the text and explanations of each Article and section.

The Constitution has been amended to include additional rights and freedoms. for example: 

  • Amendments 1-10 comprise the The Bill of Rights
  • The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment (1968) addresses citizenship rights, due process (which prohibits state and local government officials from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without legislative authorisation) and equal protection of the laws (which requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people within its jurisdiction).
  • The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's 'race, color, or previous condition of servitude'.
  • The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) gave women the vote by prohibiting any US States citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. 

In addition, the US Supreme Court has identified and implied into the Constitution fundamental rights not explicitly stated in the Constitution, such as the presumption of innocence in a criminal trial and freedom of movement.

FEDERAL LAWS

Other Federal laws protect individuals from unlawful discrimination

  • The links below to the United States Code (USC) are to the freely available online version from the Office of the Law Revision Counsel, which is the most current official version of the USC.
  • The links below to the United States Code Annotated (USCAversion on Westlaw (UniMelb staff & student access) includes commentary, legislative history, annotations and cases (Notes of Decisions). From the Westlaw Homepage, click the Federal Material tab then the United States Code Annotated link, and then navigate to the specific title and chapter. 

Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub.L. 88–352, 78 Stat. 241)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended) is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.

​See also the USC Title 42, Chapters 20-21F

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967

Equal Pay Act of 1963

For more detailed information on US federal legislative research, see the Federal Legislation tab on the US Research Guide.

Finding Federal & State Human Rights cases in multiple courts

CASES IN FEDERAL & STATE COURTS

Use Westlaw to either search or browse for cases.

A. Searching

1. Select Cases from the main Browse menu on the Westlaw homepage.

2. Click on All Federal in the top menu bar, and tick All States, then save.  You are now searching Federal and State cases.

3. Select Advanced (next to the orange magnifying glass icon)

4. For more relevant results, type your topic into the Synopsis / Digest field, using the boolean operators on the Advanced Search page eg: ["cruel and unusual punishment" & rights & "international law")]. The results can be narrowed by federal, state, jurisdiction, court, date etc, and sorted by relevance, date, most cited and most used.

B. Browsing

1. Select Key Numbers from the main Browse menu on the Westlaw homepage.

2. Use eg: the Civil Rights key (#78) or Constitutional Law key (#92) and keep scrolling and using the + signs to open up more detailed topics, which will then link to cases on the specific topic. The results can be narrowed by federal, state, jurisdiction, court, date etc, and sorted by relevance, date, most cited and most used.

OR use the United States Code Annotated (USCA) - see the Federal Human Rights Legislative Framework box on this page.

For more detailed information on US caselaw research, see the Case Law tab on the US Research Guide.

A good place to start your research ....

To find up to date commentary, cases and legislation on US human rights law, we recommend using American Jurisprudence 2nd on Westlaw (database identifier: AMJUR) - an encyclopedic statement of American law arranged alphabetically by topic.

To get to American Jurisprudence from the Westlaw Homepage: 

1. navigate to:

  • Secondary Sources > Texts & Treatises > American Jurisprudence 2d > Civil Rights or
  • Secondary Sources > Texts & Treatises > American Jurisprudence 2d > Constitutional Law > IX Fundamental Rights and Privileges or
  • use the American Jurisprudence 2nd General Index from the Tools and Resources menu on the right hand side of the page. Use the Table of Contents to browse to specific topics.  

2. You can then either browse through the content using the + signs to get increasingly specific until you get to a hyperlink to the full text commentary, or click on a heading and search within it, or use the search box at the top of the screen to search the content of the selected category.

3. Here you will find commentary, cases and links to the relevant legislation in the US Code.

US State Human Rights Legislative Frameworks

STATE CONSTITUTIONS
All US States have their own Constitutions, which typically contain a bill or declaration of rights. An up to date list of State Constitutions (with amendments) is available on Ballotpedia, including the text of the constitutions, commentary and links to the official versions of the constitutions on the state government websites. Alternatively, Wikipedia's State Constitutions page links to a separate page of background and commentary for each constitution and to the official versions of the constitutions.
 
STATE HUMAN / CIVIL RIGHTS ACTS
In those states that have established their own civil rights laws, most have created state agencies to handle the enforcement, administration, and/or investigation of violations of the laws. In some cases, the jurisdiction of the agencies is preemptive. For example, if a worker is fired because of his or her age, the firing may violate civil rights laws against age discrimination. If the state laws preempt private actions, the employee may only bring the complaint against the employer through the state agency or under the state law. In many states civil rights laws may be very specifically divided in coverage and in agencies within state government. Public accommodation, housing and employment are the most frequent specific types of discrimination covered by state laws.
(Source: Richard A Leiter (ed) National Survey of State Laws, 7th ed, 2015).

Appeals from decisions of the State complaint bodies are to State courts.

The human / civil rights legislation in each US State varies with regard to legislation titles, the framework and what rights are protected. The two easiest ways to find relevant legislation are presented below:

1. Use FindLaw's State Civil Rights Offices webpage to link to each State's government human / civil rights body.These will list and link to the relevant legislation and the process for dealing with complaints of breaches of the legislation, and in some cases links to relevant Commission and judicial decisions. 

2. Use the 50 State Statutory Surveys of civil rights on Westlaw (UniMelb staff & student access). This provides commentary, and not only lists all the relevant statutes and the complaint bodies, but usefully links to relevant cases on each provision of the statute. To get to this database: 

  • start typing 50 states into the search box on the Westlaw home page and select 50 State Statutory Surveys from the dropdown menu - you will be presented with an alphabetical list of broad topics.
  • click on civil laws and then scroll to civil rights (under the Rights and Privileges heading).
  • Links to the relevant Title/s in the Code are presented under each State. Following the links will take you to the relevant Articles in the State Code.
  • Clicking on the Article links will give you the full text of the Article.
  • On the top menu you will see History (legislative and amendment history of the Article), Citing References (journal articles and cases citing the Article), Context & Analysis (commentary in eg: American Jurisprudence), and Notes of Decisions, which links to summaries of decisions on that Article in State and Federal Courts and links to the full text decisions.

For more detailed information on US state legislative research, see the State Legislation tab on the US Research Guide.

Books

Finding Journal Articles on US Human Rights Law

To find academic / scholarly journal articles on US human rights law, irrespective of the journal in which they are published, we recommend the following indexing and abstracting databases:

Index to Legal Periodicals (ILP) - a multijurisdictional index of legal journal articles - mainly in UK, US and Canadian journals.

Legal Scholarship Network on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) - for the most recent multijurisdictional scholarship.

US Regional Obligations under the Inter-American System

The Inter-American system for the protection of human rights was created with the adoption of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in 1948, under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS comprises 35 Member States, including the US.  All Member States must comply with the rights contained in the American Declaration or may be taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The United States is a party to some of the Inter-American human rights treaties, but has not ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, and is thus not subject to the contentious jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights - that is, it cannot be a party to a case in the Court. 

See more on the Inter-American human rights system under the Regional tab in this Guide.

International Law and US Domestic Law

In addition to supporting the principles enunciated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the US is a party to three United Nations core human rights treaties:

In general, treaties are considered in the US to be self-executing, requiring no further legislative action to become part of US domestic law. With regard to treaties that recognise or create individual rights, there are self-executing and non-self-executing treaties. Non-self-executing treaties require legislative action to execute the treaty before it can apply to US law. With regard to the three core human rights treaties ratified by the US, the US has has declared that none are self-executing, and has made multiple reservations that limit the scope of treaties, so as not to supersede the rights protected in the U.S. Constitution. 

Check US ratification status, reservations and declarations of the core human rights treaties in the UN Treaty Collection Status of Treaties database.

See also the USA chapter in:

Monitoring compliance with international human rights obligations - United States, UN & Civil Society Reports

REPORTS TO AND BY THE UN 

UN Treaty Body Reports

The US is required to submit periodic reports to the UN on its implementation of each of the core UN human rights treaties it has ratified. The US Reports to the United Nations can be found on: 

  • the US Department of State US Treaty Reports page; and
  • the UN Ratification, Reporting & Documentation website, which contains all US documents (by the US, the Convention Committees and civil society) related to a reporting cycle. Select United States from the dropdown menu and then see the documents arranged by treaty and then reporting cycle.

Universal Periodic Review

The UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States, undertaken by the UN Human Rights Council. It involves review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. Review under the UPR does not depend on a country being a party to a particular human rights treaty. United States Reports can be viewed on the Documents database.

The United States Country Report includes information on the latest Universal Periodic Review, and the status of the country in relation to UN Charter based bodies and Treaty bodies.

The UN Universal Human Rights Index provides access to country-specific human rights information emanating from international human rights mechanisms in the United Nations system: the Treaty Bodies, the Special Procedures and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

CIVIL SOCIETY REPORTS

Amnesty International Annual Country Reports

Human Rights Watch annual  World Reports 

Freedom House's Freedom in the World - an annual study of political rights and civil liberties 

Human Rights ranking in the Rule of Law Index

In the latest Rule of Law Index from the World Justice Project, the United States ranked 26th out of 102 countries for its adherence to protection of fundamental human rights. See the United States statistics on the Rule of Law website. 

The factors taken into account in assessing the United States's human rights rank are those established under the Universal Declaration :

  • effective enforcement of laws that ensure equal protection; 
  • the right to life and security of the person;
  • due process of law and the rights of the accused;
  • freedom of opinion and expression;
  • freedom of belief and religion;
  • the right to privacy;
  • freedom of assembly and association; and
  • fundamental labor rights, including the right to collective bargaining, the prohibition of forced and child labor, and the elimination of discrimination.  

See the full Rule of Law Index for all countries here.

US Human Rights History

Brief timeline of US human rights from the Advocates for Human Rights

Brief chronology of the history of federal human rights legislation in the US from Humanrights.gov.

The United States and Modern Human Rights: A Brief History from the Advocates for Human Rights

US Human Rights Blogs

Human Rights First is a US independent, non-profit international human rights advocacy and action organisation. 

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