February 20, 2019 3:00PM

Unanimous Supreme Court Upholds Right to Be Free of Excessive Fines

It’s gratifying that the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, meaning that states can’t fine you in a way that’s wholly disproportionate to the offense you commit. As one of the long-established natural rights in the Anglo-American legal tradition, there’s no reason it wouldn’t be and the debates over the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification support this conclusion. (Here's Cato's brief in Timbs v. Indiana.)

At the same time, it’s disappointing that Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas were the only ones who explained, in separate concurrences, that the Fourteenth Amendment's Privileges or Immunities Clause is the more constitutionally faithful way of extending rights as against state infringement. (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion, joined by all but Justice Thomas, used the Due Process Clause.)

We’ll have to wait for some more difficult/less clear case to see if anyone else joins that originalist refrain. For practical purposes, it may not matter which clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides the mechanism by which the Excessive Fines Clause is applied to the states. But it certainly matters for unenumerated rights (those not listed in the Bill of Rights), the jurisprudence regarding is confusing and controversial. If the Fourteenth Amendment ratification debates elucidate which such rights are covered under which clause, that would be important.

For that matter, it could matter in cases where the meaning of even an enumerated right was different in 1868 (at the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification) than in 1791 (when Bill of Rights was ratified). Take the right to keep and bear arms, which the Supreme Court extended to the states in McDonald v. Chicago (2010). One of the key motivations behind the Second Amendment was the Founders' concern about government tyranny. After the Civil War, however, the right to armed self-defense took on a different dimension as the Fourteenth Amendment's enacters were quite concerned about the disarmament of freed slaves, as well as of other people who held unpopular opinions during Reconstruction. Justice Thomas -- who provided the necessary fifth vote in McDonald -- pointed this out in his solo concurrence.

Moreover, because using the Privileges or immunities Clause is more textually sound, the worst that could happen from moving away from "substantive due process" analysis is that there's no change -- but the upside is that only those rights supported by the original public meaning of constitutional text would be protected. That's the dynamic that Josh Blackman and I described in the run-up to McDonald as "Keeping Pandora's Box Sealed." 

And now we have two justices for that view, as Josh and I predicted in an early draft of our forthcoming George Mason Law Review article "The Once and Future Privileges or Immunities Clause." Before final publication, we'll have to tweak some language regarding the "prediction" there now that the Court has ruled and we know what Gorsuch thinks, but you can see our  discussion at a Fourteenth Amendment conference hosted by Scalia Law School and the Institute for Justice last October. It's unfortunate that Justice Brett Kavanaugh didn't join either of his colleagues' concurrences; he had no occasion to rule on the Fourteenth Amendment on the D.C. Circuit -- nor do any of his scholarly writings touch on this area -- so his vote today could indicate that he simply doesn't want to revisit this area of law. Or, of course, it could mean that he didn't want to rock the boat in a case where it doesn't matter. 

In any event, with two justices and near-complete (and cross-ideological) agreement in the legal academy, there is real potential for movement on the Privileges or Immunities Clause -- even if that potential hasn't yet been realized.