‘The Originalist’ Justice on Sex Discrimination

January 4, 2011
Justice Antonin Scalia's claim that the U.S. Constitution does not protect women from discrimination has riled "women's rights activists," reports The Washington Post, and stirred some critical examination of the justice's much-touted method of constitutional interpretation.

Last fall in an interview, recently published by the California Lawyer, Scalia said, "Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don't need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don't like the death penalty anymore, that's fine. You want a right to abortion? There's nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn't mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it's a good idea and pass a law. That's what democracy is all about. It's not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society."

Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin, in a Balkinization post, notes that Scalia's comments should not be news - he's provided similar commentary before. But Balkin writes that he does "have a few bones to pick with him about his originalist claims."

Balkin writes:

First, the central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to guarantee equal citizenship and equality before the law for all citizens and for all persons. It does not simply ban discrimination based on race. The fact that the word race is not mentioned in the text (as it is in the fifteenth amendment) was quite deliberate.

Scalia argues that the fourteenth amendment was not intended to prevent sex discrimination. That's not entirely true. The supporters of the fourteenth amendment did not think it would disturb the common law rules of coverture: under these rules women lost most of their common law rights upon marriage under the fiction that their legal identities were merged with their husbands. But these rules did not apply to single women. So in fact, the fourteenth amendment was intended to prohibit some forms of sex discrimination-- discrimination in basic civil rights against single women.

...

Scalia argues that if contemporary generations want to protect women, they can pass antidiscrimination laws and nothing in the original understanding of the Constitution forbids this. But this is not quite correct. The federal government would not be able to pass civil rights laws protecting women from discrimination; only states and local governments could. That is because if judges followed what the Constitution's framers expected, federal regulatory power would be greatly constricted and, among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1964's ban on sex discrimination would be unconstitutional because it would beyond federal power to enact. Justice Scalia would surely vote to uphold much federal legislation today (see his concurrence in the medical marijuana case, Gonzales v. Raich), but that is because he accepts the New Deal revolution, which he well knows is not consistent with original understandings about the scope of federal power. So Scalia's arguments about what modern majorities can do today rest on his view that a very significant proportion of constitutional understandings of the framers can simply be jettisoned because they make little sense in today's world. That is to say, he doesn't really believe in originalism either when it comes to a very wide array of cases concerning federal governmental power.