Tag: originalism

Justice Scalia’s Devilish Heart

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent interview with New York magazine has gotten a lot of attention, but for the wrong reasons. Many reactions center on his “shocking” revelation that he believes in the existence of the Devil. (Does it take a secular Jew to point out that this standard Catholic doctrine should be no more shocking than the belief that there’s a hell in addition to a heaven?) Better-informed observers will note with surprise the acerbic jurist’s repudiation of his “fainthearted originalism.” Nowadays, he said, he tries to be a “stouthearted” originalist, one who is willing to “take the bitter with the sweet.”

That approach to interpreting the Constitution would be a refreshing break with Scalia’s past, for his is not the track record of a consistent originalist. Yes, the good justice has been faithful and true to the original understanding of the Constitution’s terms in many cases – standing firm against Obamacare’s audacious expansion of federal power in NFIB v. Sebelius, for instance. Yet his heart was much less stout in the 2010 case of McDonald v. Chicago, which extended the right to keep and bear arms to the states. In that case, Scalia fell back on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause – and the very doctrine of “substantive due process” on which he has himself heaped such scorn – to “incorporate” the Second Amendment against the states.

A real originalist would have taken Justice Clarence Thomas’s tack, resurrecting the long-neglected Privileges or Immunities Clause. That Clause was widely understood at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1868 to empower the federal government to stop states from violating the rights of recently freed slaves, and by extension of all Americans. Yet in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clause didn’t restrict states’ police powers, but instead implicated only the rights attendant to U.S. (as opposed to state) citizenship.

That ruling, which unfortunately was never overturned, prompted later courts to resort clumsily to the questionable substantive due process doctrine to secure individual rights against the states. (To be sure, there has to be some substance to the Due Process – kangaroo courts don’t satisfy constitutional requirements – but that wasn’t the provision intended to secure natural rights.) By reviving the Privileges and Immunities Clause, the Court could have put those rights on a much sounder textual footing and return federal constitutional law in this area to its original meaning. Instead, Scalia took the easy way out and “acquiesced” in a 140-year-old precedent “as much as I think it’s wrong” (quotes from the McDonald oral argument). The mind boggles.

Justice Scalia has written, “It is no easy task to wean the public, the professoriate, and (especially) the judiciary away from [living constitutionalism,] a seductive and judge-empowering philosophy.” If his jurisprudence is any indication, however, getting originalism’s loudest champions to adhere to it consistently seems to be no easier. 

H/t Josh Blackman, with whom I’ve previously written about Scalia’s weak heart and the proper way to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states.

When Did Laws Denying Same-Sex Couples Marriage Licenses Become Unconstitutional?

Readers of this blog know that Cato filed a brief in Hollingsworth v. Perry arguing that state prohibitions on same-sex marriage violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  But since when have they done that?  More broadly, to quote a colloquy between Justice Scalia and Ted Olson in the Perry argument:

JUSTICE SCALIA: I’m curious, when -­ when did — when did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage? 1791? 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted? Sometimes — some time after Baker, where we said it didn’t even raise a substantial Federal question? When — when — when did the law become this?

MR. OLSON: When — may I answer this in the form of a rhetorical question? When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit interracial marriages? When did it become unconstitutional to assign children to separate schools.

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s an easy question, I think, for that one. At — at the time that the Equal Protection Clause was adopted. That’s absolutely true. But don’t give me a question to my question. When do you think it became unconstitutional? Has it always been unconstitutional? …

MR. OLSON: It was constitutional when we -­ as a culture determined that sexual orientation is a characteristic of individuals that they cannot control, and that that -­

JUSTICE SCALIA: I see. When did that happen? When did that happen?

MR. OLSON: There’s no specific date in time. This is an evolutionary cycle.

With due respect to Ted Olson, a former solicitor general who’s argued more cases than I’ve watched, I think he missed the mark on this one.  How do rights spontaneously emerge?  To pick up on one of the above examples, was segregation constitutional in 1900 but then somehow not 50 years later?  No, Plessy v. Ferguson was incorrectly decided in 1896 and Brown v. Board of Education overruled it rather than merely asserting that there was an “evolutionary cycle.”  Justice Scalia himself recognized that state racial discrimination of all kinds became unconsitutional when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, in 1868 – and not at some time in future when each particular instance of it was found to violate that provision.

And so, either it was unconstitutional to exclude same-sex couples from marriage in 1868 or it’s still constitutional to do so.  Josh Blackman and I wrote about doing this “originalism at the right time” in our exegesis of the Privileges or Immunities Clause in the context of the right to keep and bear arms, Keeping Pandora’s Box Sealed.  (Josh later extended that analysis in a short piece on gender equality and sex discrimination.)

Which isn’t to say that what the challengers have to prove here that the drafters or ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment had gay marriage in mind.  But it does mean that you have to look at what “equal protection of the laws” in 1868 and apply that understanding accordingly.  As Elizabeth Wydra, my co-counsel on our Perry brief, wrote on the Constitutional Accountability Center’s blog:

While race was obviously at the forefront of the minds of the Amendment’s drafters – after all, they had just secured an amendment banning slavery in the wake of a brutal civil war–they specifically chose language that would protect against unequal treatment based on more than just racial discrimination, and in fact affirmatively rejected narrower proposals that would prohibit only racial discrimination.

Even so, had Olson given Justice Scalia the answer I have suggested, Scalia surely would have retorted that there was no way the American people were thinking of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples when they ratified the Amendment. That’s not the point. No originalist – not even Justice Scalia – believes that the plain words of the Constitution apply only in the ways the framers expected. The ruling Justice Scalia announced from the bench just before the start of arguments this morning is a perfect example: just because there weren’t drug-sniffing police dogs in 1791, doesn’t mean their use can’t violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, as the Court held today in Florida v. Jardines.

The Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws to “any person.” In looking to what rights were understood to be protected equally, the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment understood state-sanctioned marriage as a personal, individual right that must be made available on an equal basis to all persons. Accordingly, by writing into the Constitution a requirement of equality under the law and equality of basic rights for all persons, which included the right to marry, the Amendment’s framers ensured that discriminatory state laws would not stand in the way of Americans exercising their right to marry the person of their own choosing. Laws that discriminate and deny to members of certain groups, including gays and lesbians, the right to marry the person of one’s choice thus contravene the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

See also Josh Blackman and Orin Kerr.  And for more on the original meaning of the Equal Protection Clause, see my op-ed with CAC’s president, Doug Kendall.

Conservatives vs. Libertarians on Judicial Activism

I should have posted this earlier, but if anyone interested in legal issues – should be everyone given that most things coming out of Washington these days have constitutional defects – hasn’t yet read Damon Root’s cover story in the July issue of Reason magazine, drop what you’re doing now and do so.

While not a J.D. – or perhaps because he isn’t – Damon paints a completely accurate picture on the differences between conservative and libertarian approaches to constitutional interpretation and judicial philosophy.  And I don’t mean a rehash of debates on social issues except in legalese; there are real subtleties involved, particularly when most people adhering to either of these camps call themselves “originalists” of one stripe or another.  Damon’s article is both deep and wide, surveying the landscape of relevant legal thinkers and explaining to non-lawyers why all this is so, so important.  (And no, I personally am not featured.)

What is more, you can now also watch Damon discussing his article and reporting in this area:

This is groundbreaking and important journalism.

Scalia Can No Longer Call Himself an Originalist

As I blogged last week, the Supreme Court didn’t seem amenable to Privileges or Immunities Clause arguments in last week’s gun rights case, McDonald v. Chicago.  This is unfortunate because the alternative, extending the right to keep and bear arms via the Due Process Clause, continues a long-time deviation from constitutional text, history, and structure, and reinforces the idea that judges enforce only those rights they deem “fundamental” (whatever that means).

It was especially disconcerting to see Justice Antonin Scalia, the standard-bearer for originalism, give up on his own preferred method of interpretation – and for the sole reason that it was intellectually “easier” to use the “substantive due process” doctrine.

Josh Blackman and I have an op-ed in the Washington Examiner pointing out Scalia’s hypocrisy.  Here’s a choice excerpt:

Without the Privileges or Immunities Clause … the Court must continue extending the un-originalist version of substantive due process to protect the right to keep and bear arms. To give original meaning to the Second Amendment, it must ignore the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment!

Yet this is the line Scalia took last week: Instead of accepting the plain meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause—which uncontrovertibly protects the right to keep and bear arms—the justice chose a route that avoids disturbing a 140-year-old precedent rejected by legal scholars of all ideological stripes.

In 2008, Scalia wrote, “It is no easy task to wean the public, the professoriate, and (especially) the judiciary away from [living constitutionalism,] a seductive and judge-empowering philosophy.” But at the arguments in McDonald, he argued that while the Privileges or Immunities Clause “is the darling of the professoriate,” he would prefer to follow substantive due process, in which he has now “acquiesced,” “as much as [he] think[s it is] wrong.”

Put simply, if the opinion Scalia writes or joins matches his performance last week, he can no longer be described as an originalist (faint-hearted or otherwise).  A liberty-seeking world turns its weary eyes to Justice Clarence Thomas – who has expressed an openness to reviving the constitutional order the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to create – to convince his wayward colleague that the way to interpret legal text is to look to its original public meaning.

Read the whole thing.