I recently blogged about an interesting op-ed in which Ken Klukowski and Ken Blackwell of the American Civil Rights Union argue that the Supreme Court need not overturn The Slaughter-House Cases while “incorporating” the right to bear arms against the states. (Josh Blackman fisked the article in more depth here.) This piece was essentially a distillation of the ACRU’s amicus brief in McDonald v. City of Chicago, which ultimately argues, like Cato’s brief, that Chicago’s gun ban is unconstitutional.
It has come to my attention, however, that I mischaracterized one aspect of the Kens’ op-ed (sorry about that): while they are indeed against overturning Slaughter-House, the authors still seek to apply the Second Amendment right through the Privileges or Immunities Clause (like Cato and most libertarians), rather than through the Due Process Clause (like many conservatives and gun rights proponents). This is the ACRU’s main argument, and it is based largely on Ken Klukowski’s recent law review article – indeed, the brief’s body cites Klukowski article some 20 times, often for propositions that find no further support in case law or academic literature. (Josh has also provided a short critique of the ACRU brief/Klukowski article, so I won’t do that here.)
In any event, this clarification gives me an opportunity to name and outline the five possible ways a justice could come down in the McDonald case:
- “Extreme Anti-Gun” – Affirm the lower court in its entirety, deciding that it correctly interpreted Supreme Court precedent, that reconsideration of this precedent is unwarranted, and therefore that neither the Second Amendment nor the right to bear arms it protects extends to people in the states (as opposed to in federal territories, like the District of Columbia). I can’t imagine that any justice will vote for this way; even those who dissented in Heller generally support the selective incorporation of rights against the states.
- “Conventional Liberal” – Affirm the lower court in part but clarify that while the Second Amendment is indeed “incorporated” as against the states via the Due Process Clause, Chicago’s gun ban is still okay – possibly under a test weighing the individual right against the city’s interest in reducing gun violence. There may be one to four votes for this position: Justice Breyer likes balancing tests; Justice Stevens may feel that his hometown’s regulations are justified; and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor may feel the same way about New York.
- “Conventional Conservative” – Reverse the lower court, “incorporate” the Second Amendment via the Due Process Clause – adopting an analysis akin to that of Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain in the Nordyke case – and strike down Chicago’s gun ban. The NRA’s brief primarily advocates this position, as do many conservatives fearful of the Privileges or Immunities Clause. There may be one to eight votes for this position: The “minimalist” Chief Justice Roberts may be hesitant to overturn longstanding precedent; Justice Scalia may decide that the devil he knows (substantive due process) is better than the one he doesn’t (privileges or immunities); Justice Kennedy may feel vested in his own expansive “fundamental rights” jurisprudence under the Due Process Clause (see my review of a book analyzing that jurisprudence); Justice Alito may share one or more of the above sentiments; and one or more of the aforementioned liberals may decide to “bite the bullet” and go along with this position.
- “Mend Slaughter-House, Don’t End It” – Reverse the lower court, overturn three old precedents – Cruikshank (1876), Presser (1886), and Miller (1894), which were decided at a time when none of the rights in the Bill of Rights was considered to apply to the states – “incorporate” the Second Amendment via the Privileges or Immunities Clause without touching Slaughter-House, and strike down Chicago’s gun ban. This is the ACRU position, and while I don’t think it’s textually or historically supportable – a scholarly consensus across ideological lines holds that Slaughter-House was both wrongly decided and forecloses any significant application of the Privileges or Immunities Clause – it could emerge as a political “compromise.” (If Justice O’Connor were still on the Court, I could maybe see her advancing this position.)
- “Originalist/Libertarian” – Reverse the lower court, overturn Slaughter-House and the three aforementioned cases, extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states (which is technically distinct from “incorporating” the Second Amendment), and strike down Chicago’s gun ban. This is Cato’s position – as well as that of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center on behalf of eight leading constitutional law professors from across the political spectrum – and there will be one and may be up to all nine of the justices here: Justice Thomas has long said that he’d like to revisit Slaughter-House in the appropriate case, and he surely led the push to grant a cert petition whose question presented called for briefing about the Privileges or Immunities Clause; any of the others who seriously grapple with the arguments in Alan Gura’s brilliant petitioners’ brief (and those of his amici, us included) will also have to go this way despite their various political qualms.
In short, I see at least five votes in favor of extending the right to keep and bear arms to the states, but it’s an open question as to whether the Court will do that via the Due Process of Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Now, you may ask why, if I’m so confident that the fifth option above is correct, don’t all conservatives qua self-professed “originalists” gravitate towards it (and, conversely, why some liberals qua “living constitutionalists” do). That’s an unlawyerly matter of policy preferences: as the Kens’ op-ed details, conservatives (and some libertarians), while wanting to extend Heller’s interpretation of the Second Amendment to the states, are wary of opening a Pandora’s Box of positive rights (health care, housing, welfare, etc.), as well as the perpetual culture-war bogeymen (abortion, gay marriage, pornography, etc.). Liberal intellectuals, meanwhile, are holding their nose at having to extend gun rights because they feel that’s the only concession they have to make to achieve their utopic constitutionalization of the entire progressive agenda.
While libertarians share the conservative concern about positive rights – as well as legal, if typically not policy, qualms about courts’ handling of social issues (e.g., that Roe v. Wade is bad law even if some libertarians are pro-choice; that Lawrence v. Texas is good law but achieved through Kennedy-esque hand-waving rather than sound legal reasoning) – many of us see the benefits of being able to protect economic liberties and other natural rights. For example, unlike conservatives, we generally like Lochner, the 1905 case that struck down on “liberty of contract” grounds a New York law limiting bakers’ hours.
Yes there’s a danger – particularly if President Obama gets to replace not only Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, but also Scalia and Kennedy – that overturning Slaughter-House will open the aforementioned Pandora’s Box, but: 1) that danger isn’t necessarily mitigated by somehow managing to use the Privileges or Immunities Clause without overturning Slaughter-House; 2) the danger is no different than under the current substantive due process doctrine; and 3) if we are to remain originalists not just in overturning Slaughter-House but in future jurisprudence, the progressives’ arguments fail, the danger is averted, and the Box stays sealed. Josh Blackman and I wrote our article, “Keeping Pandora’s Box Sealed: Privileges or Immunities, The Constitution in 2020, and Properly Extending the Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” in part to address the valid concerns (sketched in the Kens’ op-ed) about the consequences of truly reviving the Privileges or Immunities Clause.
While we won’t assuage the staunchest social conservatives – (adult) pornography is protected speech (but even more so is political advertising!) – we should mollify many faint-hearted originalists. Anyone who thinks the Constitution is a “dead” document, whose text is to be interpreted according to its original public meaning, has to admit that the Privileges or Immunities Clause protects something more than what Slaughter-House said it did.
To see how all this works in greater detail, read our Pandora’s Box article, which I’ve previously discussed here , here, and here. And again, Cato’s amicus brief is here; see also this law review article by its principal author, Cato adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur.