Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • May 5, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law; Author, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America

    May 15 marks the 75th anniversary of United States v. Miller, a 1939 case in which the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of weapons that were not related to the “preservation or efficiency of a well regulated Militia.” For decades, this was the only consideration the Court gave the Second Amendment, and arguably, it was generally understood that the Amendment's scope was limited to the use of firearms in connection with military activities. This changed in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, and subsequently in 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago, when the Court declared that the Second Amendment provided an "individual right to possess a firearm.”  The Court explained that they were not overturning Miller; that Miller only limited the type of weapon to which the individual right applies. As we consider the constitutional, legal and policy questions that now surround the Second Amendment, we should take a step back and ask if the Supreme Court got it right in Heller and McDonald.  How should the Second Amendment be interpreted? ACS is pleased to raise this important question with progressive constitutional scholars and historians in an ACSblog symposium this week, May 5 through May 9.

    Heller was right. The Constitution protects the right of individuals to have arms for personal protection. Even if you don’t believe this accurately describes the original meaning of the Second Amendment – the history of which has confounded many – you should support the result if you believe the Constitution protects fundamental, unenumerated rights. There’s a long commitment in American constitutionalism to unwritten rights, including the right to privacy and the right to marry. In identifying which unwritten rights are protected by the Constitution, the courts ask whether the right, as a matter of history and tradition, has been respected by the American people. Under the doctrine of substantive due process, if the right is “objectively, deeply in this Nation’s history and tradition” it will be protected. The right of individuals to have guns for personal protection, especially in the home, easily passes this test.

    The right of individuals to have a gun in the home for self-defense has long been respected by American law. Since the founding, no state has ever prohibited its residents from having a gun in the home. Although Washington, D.C. effectively banned guns in the home for self-defense and Chicago banned handguns (while allowing long guns), these idiosyncratic outliers only highlight the dominant, longstanding legal tradition of allowing individuals to own guns. In numerous due process cases, the Supreme Court has looked to the absence of laws prohibiting the relevant behavior as strong evidence of a deeply rooted right. In Roe v. Wade, the Court explained that abortions in early pregnancy were not barred under the common law. In Lawrence v. Texas, the Court recognized that laws singling out same-sex sodomy for criminal punishment, while allowing opposite-sex couples to engage in the same activity, were contrary to our legal traditions. In Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court denied substantive due process protection for the right to die by pointing to the long history and tradition of laws against suicide. There’s no history and tradition of laws preventing law-abiding people from having guns.

  • May 5, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor, The University of Chicago

    May 15 marks the 75th anniversary of United States v. Miller, a 1939 case in which the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of weapons that were not related to the “preservation or efficiency of a well regulated Militia.” For decades, this was the only consideration the Court gave the Second Amendment, and arguably, it was generally understood that the Amendment's scope was limited to the use of firearms in connection with military activities. This changed in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, and subsequently in 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago, when the Court declared that the Second Amendment provided an "individual right to possess a firearm.”  The Court explained that they were not overturning Miller; that Miller only limited the type of weapon to which the individual right applies. As we consider the constitutional, legal and policy questions that now surround the Second Amendment, we should take a step back and ask if the Supreme Court got it right in Heller and McDonald.  How should the Second Amendment be interpreted? ACS is pleased to raise this important question with progressive constitutional scholars and historians in an ACSblog symposium this week, May 5 through May 9.

    In many respects, the United States Constitution has served as a model for constitutions throughout the world. Of the 188 nations that have written constitutions, the vast majority have adopted fundamental guarantees that were first fully articulated in the United States Constitution.

    Indeed, 97 percent of all the world's constitutions now protect the freedom of religion; 97 percent protect the freedom of speech and press; 97 percent protect a right of equality; 97 percent protect the right to private property; 95 percent protect the freedom against unreasonable searches; and 84 percent forbid cruel and unusual punishment. These freedoms, which were first constitutionalized in the United States, are now widely recognized as fundamental to a free, humane and civilized society.

    On the other hand, only 1 percent of all the other nations of the world recognize a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Of the 188 nations with written constitutions, only Mexico and Guatemala have followed our example. Every other nation has rejected the notion that individuals have a fundamental right to purchase and possess firearms.

    These data are interesting because they shed light on the meaning of the Second Amendment. What did the Framers have in mind? Could they really have enshrined a right that virtually no one else in the world values?

  • April 22, 2014
    Today, the Supreme Court “upheld a Michigan voter initiative that banned racial preferences in admissions to the state’s public universities.” In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that “the Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat…but neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.” Adam Liptak at The New York Times has the story.
     
    Earlier this morning, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. The case deals with the issue of whether it can be a crime to falsify information about a candidate in a political campaign.  NPR’s Katie Barlow and Nina Totenberg break down this issue of free speech.
     
    Writing for The American Prospect, Virginia Eubanks explains why “Big Data might have disproportionate impacts on the poor, women, or racial and religious minorities.”
     
    David Gans at Balkinization responds to George Will’s column for The Washington Post , defending progressive’s constitutional interpretation which “does not force us to choose between liberty and democracy.”  
     
    At The Brennan Center for Justice, Walter Shapiro “[demystifies] the power of money in politics.” 
  • April 2, 2014
    Guest Post

    by David Earley, Counsel, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law

    The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision today dealt another serious blow to the regulation of money in politics. In its 5-4 decision, the Court struck down the federal aggregate contribution limits, which restrict the amount one person can contribute to all candidates, parties, and political committees combined. As a result, one person can now give more than $3.6 million to one party’s candidates and committees in a single election cycle (under the limits, one could give “only” $123,200 per election cycle). With a sufficiently sophisticated joint fundraising apparatus, this money could be given in response to a solicitation from a single party leader.

    While this is troubling by itself, the more sinister part of the decision lies in the groundwork the decision laid for future money in politics cases. 

    The Court doubled down on its holding that corruption only includes contributions given with the expectation of receiving official action in return — essentially a direct bribe in the guise of a political contribution. The Court also acknowledged that contributions can be used to gain ingratiation with and access to government officials while not reaching the level of outright bribery. But the Court praised this relationship rather than condemning it: 

    We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford. . . . They embody a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be respon­sive to those concerns.

    This vision of the Constitution is wrong. It elevates wealthy donors who can afford to buy influence over 99.99 percent of Americans, who have an equal right to representation. Although the Court may talk in the language of protecting constituents, the outcome is clear — big donors can give to however many candidates they want, regardless of whether they can vote for those candidates or would be constituents of those candidates. This case is about big money, not constituents.

  • March 31, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Frederick Gedicks, Guy Anderson Chair and Professor of Law, Brigham Young University Law School

    In the wake of last week’s oral argument of the contraception mandate cases, numerous reporters and bloggers have suggested that the government’s defense of the mandate went badly because (roughly), “Justice Kennedy thinks Hobby Lobby is an abortion case.” The basis for this take is that Justice Kennedy’s questions linked the mandate with abortion rights, to which he has only a limited commitment: Justice Kennedy joined the joint opinion of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) which upheld the “core” of Roe v. Wade (1973), but he subsequently authored the majority opinion in Gonzalez v. Carhart (2007), which upheld a federal statutory ban on late-term abortions despite the absence of health exception. (See also Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), with Kennedy dissenting to the Court’s striking down of a state ban.)

    But there’s another way of seeing Hobby Lobby. Justice Kennedy also asked questions that linked Hobby Lobby’s opposition to the mandate to the burdens a religious exemption from the mandate would impose on its employees, and he has expressed concern in past decisions about religious exemptions that shift the cost of accommodation from those who practice the accommodated religion to those who don’t. For example, Kennedy wrote in the Kiryas Joel that “a religious accommodation demands careful scrutiny to ensure that it does not so burden nonadherents or so discriminate against other religions as to become an establishment” (concurring in the judgment).

    This concern about cost-shifting religious accommodations would presumably be front and center in any case involving religious exemptions that would burden gays and lesbians. Whatever he thinks about abortion rights, there can be no question that Justice Kennedy has long been unequivocally opposed to discrimination against gays and lesbians. See United States v.  Windsor (2013); Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013); Lawrence v. Texas (2003); Romer v. Evans (1996). Indeed, it would appear from Windsor that Justice Kennedy is prepared to hold that state prohibitions and restrictions on same-sex marriage violate the both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the 14th Amendment.

    Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) exemptions for Hobby Lobby would open the door to state religious exemptions excusing for-profit businesses from serving same-sex couples or providing certain benefits to gay and lesbian employees. A religious exemption from the contraception mandate for Hobby Lobby would establish a more general principle that for-profit businesses and their owners are entitled to statutory accommodation of their religious beliefs, even when such accommodations impose significant costs on others who do not share those beliefs. Under this principle, not only could an employer claim the right not to provide services for a same-sex wedding on religious grounds, it could also claim the right not to provide mandated employee benefits like health insurance coverage for same-sex spouses, or leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act for gay employees who adopt a child.