This Month’s Cato Unbound: What Is Due Process?

What is due process?

Virtually everyone would agree that “due process” refers to a set of judicial procedures that create at least a strong tendency toward fair results.

But why do we have these procedures and not some others? Why do we have trial by jury, and not trial by fire? Why not just flip a coin? In this month’s Cato Unbound, our lead essayist, Timothy Sandefur, says that we have the procedures we do for one very simple reason: We recognize them as fair.

In other words, “due process” ultimately points back at a larger – and much thornier – legal and philosophical issue, that of fair treatment itself. If it didn’t, “due process” would just guarantee some empty (or possibly harmful) rituals.

So far, so good. Sandefur doesn’t stop there, however. He adds that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ guarantees of due process mean “not only that government must take certain procedural steps (hearings, trials, and so forth) when it imposes a deprivation, but also that some acts are off limits for government, “regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them.”

In other words, due process is a check both on the procedure of the judiciary and on the substance of legislation. Some kinds of laws, Sandefur argues, cannot be implemented by any fair process – there’s no good reason for them, and there’s no lipstick enough for pigs like these. In such cases, the guarantee of due process is either a mockery of itself – or it’s enough to strike down the law. Sandefur picks the latter.

Is he right? Professor Lawrence Rosenthal of Chapman University disagrees, writing:

Deciding whether a law is supported by “good reason” is the essence of policymaking. Our Constitution guarantees a republican form of government, and in a republic, policy is made by those who are politically accountable for their decisions. Sandefur’s conception of due process of law, however, creates a judicial platonic guardianship that must approve every policy decision.

One side risks judicial overreach. The other side risks the tyranny of the majority. Which one is right? Stay tuned for the rest of this month’s Cato Unbound, which will also feature commentary by legal scholars Ryan Williams of the University of Pennsylvania and Gary Lawson of Boston University. Legal scholars will also want to review Sandefur’s paper in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (pdf), which develops the argument in fuller detail.