D.C. Circuit 1, WaPo 0

Substantive due process cases make normally careful commentators sloppy. As many readers know, the D.C. Circuit ruled on Tuesday that “a terminally ill, mentally competent adult patient’s informed access to potentially life-saving … new drugs … warrants protection under the Due Process Clause.” Comes the Washington Post editorial board with a slapdash discussion of the case. The Post argues that the decision pulls a new constitutional right “out of thin air”—one that could “create a right to LSD or marijuana.”

Golly. Is that right? Now, there’s no denying the Court’s substantive due process line of cases is controversial. But this decision didn’t pop out of thin air and its not going to legalize marijuana. [Warning: lengthy legal discussion follows.]

The D.C. Circuit is a lower court, obligated to follow superior court precedent. The Supreme Court over the last three decades has dipped again and again into the substantive due process well. Let’s put Roe v. Wade, the most controversial example, to the side. The most restrictive framework for assessing substantive due process follows the framework set out in Justice Scalia’s plurality opinion Michael H v. Gerald D (joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist). Scalia’s opinion in Michael H makes three points:

1. Constitutionally protected liberty interests must be rooted in a “fundamental principle of the common law.”

2. The Court must select “the most specific level at which a relevant tradition protecting, or denying protection to, the asserted right can be identified.”

3. The liberty interest cannot be rooted in abstractions or generalizations. It must be rooted in a concrete description of actual case law.

The Court has since disagreed, sharply, about how to apply these principles. But, as Michael H underscores, even the most conservative members of the Court agree that the “liberty interests” protected by the due process clause include more than just freedom from restraint.

The Abigail decision does a level job of following the framework laid out in Michael H. It is at its strongest in its reliance on the common law tort rule creating a duty to refrain from “intentionally prevent[ing] a third person from giving to another aid necessary to his bodily security,” which, under Michael H, provides the most specific common law support for the liberty interest recognized.

The challenge for the case is twofold: First, the tort duty against interference with self-help and rescue is, as the court recognizes, ancient but infrequently invoked. It’s arguable that the frequency in which a widely recognized tort is invoked should not factor into whether it rises to the level of a liberty interest, since this sort of empirical judgment isn’t something courts do well. Rather, the legal question is whether the right is ancient and widely accepted as a formal principal of tort law today. (The principal problem for this argument is Lawrence v. Texas, which held state sodomy laws applied to consensual adult homosexual conduct violate the Due Process Clause, based in part on the way in which sodomy laws have been historically prosecuted. But, as the D.C. Circuit notes, some lower courts have viewed Lawrence as “not, properly speacking, a substantive due process decision.”)

Second, the pervasiveness of drug restrictions will lend credence to an argument that common law rule has been limited with respect to certain kinds of administrative regulations and can no longer be described as part of our legal traditions. The D.C. Circuit’s basic argument is that federal prohibitions on marketing of new drugs are too spotty to have displaced the basic common law rule. This is surely the most problematic part of the opinion, because the Michael H framework suggests that the presence of a countervailing regulatory tradition can refute the existence of a liberty interest. Hence the relevance of the dissent’s discussion of a history of drug regulation in colonial and nineteenth century state drug laws.

Here, there are perhaps two arguments for the D.C. Circuit. First, perhaps the evidence of a fundamental right should differ depending on whether the regulation is state or federal: perhaps a history of federal regulation is relevant to the scope of due process limits on federal law. (Michael H and most other substantive due process cases, such as Cruzan and Glucksberg, involve state laws.)

Second, and more interestingly, the D.C. Circuit argues that the challenge involves a challenge to an administrative regulation, not to a federal statute. The logic of the D.C. Circuit (see footnote 9 of the opinion for this point) appears to be that administrative regulations promulgated under a legislative delegation of rulemaking authority come with a lesser presumption of constitutionality for purposes of fundamental rights analysis. The point is fuzzy, but appears to assume that, in such challenges, plaintiffs bear a lesser burden of proving a liberty interest than they do when confronting a duly enacted federal statute. This argument is perhaps the most intriguing—and, to my mind, the most fertile for defenders of the D.C. Circuit’s decision.

If I read the case right, the latter point adds additional fuel for explaining why this decision says nothing about marijuana and LSD: both drugs are labeled Schedule I drugs (no accepted medical use) by Congress. The decision can only have implications for Schedule I drugs if the FDA uses its delegated authority to reschedule either drug.  Not likely any time soon, I’m afraid.

The point is, even under the most restrictive approach to substantive due process, the D.C. Circuit has a fairly reasonable argument based on precedent. And the D.C. Circuit must follow the Supreme Court’s precedents as it understands them. The decision is surely open to challenge, as even its staunchest defenders must admit. But only a sloppy lawyer can say this decision popped out of thin air.