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Justice is one of the main goals of democratic constitutions, along with the achievement of order, security, liberty, and the common good. The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, for example, says that one purpose of the document is to “establish Justice.” And, in the 51st paper of “The Federalist,” James Madison proclaims, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” So, what is justice? And how is it pursued in a constitutional democracy?

Since ancient times, philosophers have said that justice is achieved when everyone receives what is due to her or him. Justice is certainly achieved when persons with equal qualifications receive equal treatment from the government. For example, a government establishes justice when it equally guarantees the human rights of each person within its authority. As each person is equal in her or his membership in the human species, each one possesses the same immutable human rights, which the government is bound to protect equally.

By contrast, the government acts unjustly if it protects the human rights of some individuals under its authority while denying the same protection to others. The racial segregation laws that prevailed in some parts of the United States until the mid-1960s, for example, denied justice to African-American people.

America’s greatest civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., said that racial segregation laws were “unjust laws” because they prevented black Americans from enjoying the same rights and opportunities as other citizens of the United States. When he opposed unjust racial segregation laws, King asserted that the worth and dignity of each person must be respected equally because each one is equally a member of the human species. Thus, any action by the government or groups of citizens that violated the worth and dignity of any person, as did the racial segregation laws, was unjust and should not be tolerated. King and his followers, therefore, protested these laws and eventually brought about their demise.

By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)