An article cited in the Cato Clips late yesterday caught my eye: “Libertarian Judicial Activism Isn’t What the Courts Need.” Written by Texas attorney Mark Pulliam, a sometime contributor to such libertarian publications as Reason and The Freeman, among others, it was posted at a site called “Southeastern Texas Record” and a day earlier at “American Greatness” (I leave it to the reader to discern what that site is about). The title speaks for itself. As the first named target of the piece, I’m given to respond, briefly. Others, in order of appearance, are Randy Barnett, Clark Neily, Ilya Shapiro, Kermit Roosevelt III, Dick Carpenter, Anthony Sanders, and, by implication (their book, The Dirty Dozen, is cited), Bob Levy and Chip Mellor—a veritable rogues gallery of libertarian legal scholars.
Could we all be wrong? Apparently so. We’ve “devised a novel theory that the Constitution, properly understood, protects a person’s ‘right to do those acts which do not harm others,’” Pulliam argues, “enforceable against the federal government and the states,” and “it is only judges who get to decide whether a particular law is justified constitutionally.” What’s worse, we’re urging President-elect Trump to appoint adherents of this “fanciful theory” to the Court.
And why is that theory “unsound and misguided”? To begin, Pulliam claims that it
rests on the premise that the Constitution was not so much an arrangement among the individual states (which themselves were separate Lockean social compacts) as it was a very limited delegation to the federal government of individual sovereignty (harkening back to the Declaration of Independence and its reliance on “natural rights”).
To be sure, the Constitution was ratified through state conventions. But as the Preamble makes crystal clear, it’s theory of legitimacy, drawing from the Declaration’s theory, rests on the idea that “We the people,” in our individual capacities, for the purposes indicated, came together to “ordain and establish this Constitution.” And as is also clear from the very next sentence—the first sentence of Article I—we “granted” such legislative powers as we did to a Congress, a very limited delegation, as Article I, Section 8 indicates. So what’s the problem?
To get a hint, notice the scare-quotes (sneer-quotes?) around “natural rights.” “In this rubric,” Pulliam writes, “individuals continue to possess all unalienable rights to which they were endowed in the ‘state of nature,’ other than the federal powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution.” Well, yes, that’s plain from background theory, text, and numerous explanations in the Federalist. How else could it be? Is it that there are no rights but only powers, which we “granted”? By what right, then, did we “ordain,” “establish,” and “grant”? Of course, none of that makes sense if natural rights and state-of-nature theory are dismissed out of hand. But the Founders and Framers took those ideas seriously. They did not view the Constitution as a mere compact among the states, grounded simply in will.
Insofar as it pertains to the federal government, Pulliam concludes his understanding of libertarian constitutional theory as follows:
“Natural rights,” [libertarians] claim, are protected by the reference to “liberty” in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, and the Ninth and 10th Amendments preserve to the people—as individuals, not as states—all rights not specifically surrendered to the federal government.
No. To be sure, the rights “retained” by “the people” through the Ninth Amendment and the powers “reserved” to “the states respectively, or to the people” by the Tenth Amendment were retained and reserved to the people as individuals, not as states. Indeed, why would the Framer’s switch from individual to collective rights when they got to the Ninth, especially since the contrast the Amendment draws is between enumerated and unenumerated rights, not between individual and collective rights, and because the idea of “retained” rights is perfectly consistent with the basic theory of the Constitution—enumerated powers, retained pre-existing natural rights (see just below)? Moreover, why would the Tenth speak of both “the people” and “the states” if the powers thus reserved were meant to be reserved to the people collectively, “as states”? Reservation to “the people” would be redundant.
But second, and more fundamentally, as the Federalist argues throughout, natural rights are protected mainly not by the Bill of Rights—there was none when the Federalist was written—but by the enumeration of powers, for by the logic of the matter, where there is no power there is a right. After all, did we not have rights against the federal government during the two years before the Bill of Rights was added? Of course we did. Since the government had only limited powers, we had a vast sea of rights, all unenumerated. But are we then to imagine that by adding a Bill of Rights we actually lost most of those rights? That’s the conclusion implicit in the contention by Pulliam and many conservatives that we have only enumerated rights—as if the Bill of Rights were a grant of rights. It was not. It was simply a muniment of certain rights. And all of that was made clear by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, which memorialized the very theory of the Constitution—as adumbrated in the Declaration’s theory of moral and political legitimacy. When understood properly, it all goes together elegantly. (See here for more on this.)
But what about the states? Here, Pulliam believes, is the libertarians’ Achilles’ heel:
Libertarians have a facile “solution” to the potentially vexing question of the states’ police powers,” which antedated the drafting and ratification of the Constitution: they contend that the 14th Amendment applied the Fifth Amendment (including the protection of “liberty” in the due process clause) to the states, particularly through the “privileges or immunities” clause, which libertarians believe was erroneously drained of its intended meaning in the incorrectly decided Slaughter-House Cases in 1873.
Drawing from the text plus the debates in the 39th Congress and in the ratifying conventions, we do indeed believe that the Fourteenth Amendment applied the guarantees of the Bill of Rights against the states, ab initio; that the Privileges or Immunities Clause means what it says, that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”; and that the Court egregiously misread that law in 1873. But we’re hardly alone in believing that. Most other scholars today do as well.
We come, then, to the heart of the matter. If both enumerated and unenumerated rights are among our privileges or immunities as citizens of the United States, as those who drafted and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment believed, then no state shall abridge them. And further—now we hit Pulliam’s sore spot—it falls ultimately to the courts to enforce those privileges or immunities, all of them—not only the right to speak but the right to an honest calling, the right to buy and use contraceptives (a right “that nowhere appears in the Constitution,” he says), and more, much more.
Thus, it’s our call for “judicial engagement” that most vexes Pulliam—he calls it “a judicially managed state of anarchy.” Fearing “judicial activism,” he would limit judges to enforcing only enumerated rights, the text and underlying theory of the Constitution notwithstanding—and in the name of “originalism,” no less. Well that itself is a form of “activism”—ignoring the law in deference to wide-ranging majoritarian rule inconsistent with that law. At bottom, then, the difference between Pulliam and libertarians is over what the Constitution itself says. Like many conservatives, he has allowed his fear of what he sees as judicial activism to color his reading of the Constitution. Is there judicial activism? Of course there is. But the answer to bad judging is not judicial abdication. It’s better judging. And that starts, and ends, with a careful but correct reading of the Constitution.
So why did this piece appear just now at “American Greatness” and a day later at “Southeastern Texas Record”? Pulliam answers that by reference in his final sentence: “President Trump should avoid jurists in any way sympathetic to this badly misguided theory.” The link is to a June 2015 decision by Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, one of Mr. Trump’s “21,” upholding a claim to economic liberty, a right the Founders and the Civil War Amendment’s Framers would have thought fundamental in the Constitution’s plan for ordered liberty—and one that Mr. Trump may find attractive as well.