Constitutional Interpretation and Change

  • June 15, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Eric Ruben, Jurisprudence Fellow, The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law

    Tomorrow, an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit will rehear oral arguments in Peruta v. County of San Diego, a case that spawned an originalist opinion last year that would have drastically increased the number of people publicly carrying handguns in California and Hawaii.

    California, Hawaii, and seven states outside the Ninth Circuit have “may issue” laws and policies requiring applicants to show a heightened need for self-defense — something beyond a generalizable fear of being attacked — before they can receive a permit to carry concealed handguns in public. The plaintiffs in Peruta wanted to carry handguns, could not satisfy this requirement, and sued in federal court alleging a violation of their Second Amendment rights.

    Peruta represents one of the most significant Second Amendment cases since 2008, when the Supreme Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller. In Heller, the Supreme Court held for the first time in over 200 years that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a handgun inside the home for self-defense. In 1791, when the Second Amendment was adopted, modern semi-automatic firearms didn’t exist and elected officials weren’t struggling to find solutions to a massive gun crime problem. But Heller expressly rejected an analysis that took into consideration the government’s interest in dealing with a deadly modern-day problem. Rather, the Heller majority, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, relied almost exclusively on an historical analysis for its conclusion, asserting that “[c]onstitutional rights are enshrined with the scope they were understood to have when the people adopted them.” The history considered in Heller, however, arguably does not dictate Heller’s holding. Liberal and conservative commentators alike have criticized Heller’s originalism for providing a misleading historical cloak for an activist judicial ruling.

    Heller left unresolved many obvious issues, such as the scope of the right to bear arms outside the home and how lower courts should decide Second Amendment challenges — through a purely originalist analysis or by applying means-ends scrutiny that would take into consideration the government’s interest in preventing violent crime, death, and injuries. Those issues have been considered by lower courts in the hundreds of legal challenges to firearm regulations since Heller, and they are at the heart of Peruta.

    The Second, Third, and Fourth Circuits have held that “may issue” laws like California’s in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland are constitutional. Those courts, and the majority of lower courts considering Second Amendment challenges since Heller, have refrained from grounding their decisions in originalism. The rejection of originalism as the sole basis for decision making is likely a reflection of the fact that (as in Heller) the history is often disputed and busy judges are neither trained nor equipped to answer nuanced historical questions on the basis of necessarily limited records. When the Second Circuit considered New York’s “may issue” statute in 2012, it found the history “highly ambiguous” and upheld the law under intermediate scrutiny, concluding that the law was substantially related to the achievement of an important government interest — public safety and crime prevention. The Third and Fourth Circuits employed similar analyses to uphold New Jersey’s and Maryland’s “may issue” laws in 2013.

  • April 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the School of Law, Distinguished Professor of Law, and the Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s symposium on the consolidated marriage equality cases before the Supreme Court.

    Nothing in the almost two and a half hours of oral arguments altered my prediction that at the end of June 2015 the Supreme Court will hold that state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage deny equal protection to gays and lesbians. The only question is whether it will be 5-4 or 6-3 to declare unconstitutional laws prohibiting marriage equality and whether the opinion will be written by Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Anthony Kennedy.

    Why the certainty of this prediction? To begin with, the states that are defending their bans on same-sex marriage – Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee –failed to articulate any legitimate justification for their laws. In reality, the laws prohibiting same-sex marriage stem from a moral condemnation of homosexuality, but the Supreme Court has been explicit that it will not accept such a justification for laws discriminating against gays and lesbians.

    So the states are trying to defend their laws by stressing tradition and the historic definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman. But a tradition of discrimination is not an acceptable reason in the courts for continuing to discriminate. In 1967, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a state law that prohibited interracial marriage. Such laws had existed throughout American history, even in California until the 1940s. But the Court rightly gave no deference to this tradition and rejected the argument that the definition of marriage should be left to the political process.

    The primary argument made by the states is that marriage is linked to procreation and that only opposite sex couples can procreate without artificial assistance. Michigan, for example, declares in its brief:   “Separating marriage from procreation dramatically changes the state’s interest in the institution. . . .  It is the state’s interest to encourage opposite-sex couples to enter into a permanent, exclusive union within which to have and raise children that motivates state marriage laws.”

  • March 23, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Suja A. Thomas, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law; author of The Other Branch: Restoring the Jury’s Role in the American Constitution (forthcoming Cambridge University Press).  This post is based on her essay, Text-Bound Originalism (and Why Originalism Does Not Strictly Govern Same Sex Marriage).

    Many assume originalism has an important place in the debate about whether states can prohibit same sex marriage.  As the argument goes, the original public meaning of the Equal Protection Clause was the protection of African-Americans, so there is no constitutional barrier to states' prohibition of same sex marriage.  In deciding that states could prohibit same sex marriage, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recognized the relevance of this originalist interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause along with other arguments for permitting the prohibition of same sex marriage—all of which the Supreme Court will soon consider.

    But does originalism have a significant place in the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause and thus in the same sex marriage decision?  Those advocating the use of originalism believe that originalism must strictly govern the interpretation of the Constitution.  Thus far in arguing for this originalist methodology, however, they have not acknowledged that the text of the Constitution explicitly requires the application of originalism for the interpretation of one provision in the Constitution—the Seventh Amendment.  In ignoring this textual inclusion of originalism and corresponding textual exclusion of originalism elsewhere, originalists have not shown why originalism should strictly govern other parts of the Constitution.

  • March 12, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    The Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”  This statement may seem simple enough, but U.S. Senator David Vitter is once again pushing legislation to upend the Constitution’s provision of birthright citizenship.

    According to Vitter, the 14th Amendment is misunderstood and contains a loophole that needs to be closed to prevent an influx of “birth tourists.”  Constitutional law experts say the Amendment is straight forward, and Vitter and his cohorts are trying to destroy a constitutional right.

    This is not a new debate.  The faulty arguments behind Vitter’s legislation were addressed and discredited years ago by scholars including Garrett Epps of the University of Baltimore School of Law and Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who authored an Issue Brief on the subject.  Take a look at the resources below for a thorough explanation of why new attempts to take away birthright citizenship are still wrong.

    Born in the USA?: The Historical and Constitutional Underpinnings of Birthright Citizenship (video)

    Born Under the Constitution: Why Recent Attacks on Birthright Citizenship Are Unfounded, Elizabeth Wydra (Issue Brief)

    Epps on “Da Vinci Code Originalism” and the Citizenship Clause (ACSblog)

    Here We Go Again: At Republican Debate, Pawlenty Denies Constitutional Text and History Establishing Birthright Citizenship, Elizabeth Wydra (ACSblog)

  • January 22, 2015
    BookTalk
    Madison's Music: On Reading the First Amendment
    By: 
    Burt Neuborne

    by Burt Neuborne, Inez Milholland Professor of Civil Liberties, NYU Law, and Founding Legal Director, Brennan Center for Justice

    We honor James Madison as the driving force behind the Bill of Rights.  We recognize him as Thomas Jefferson’s indispensable political lieutenant.  We applaud him as the nation’s fourth president.  But we will never do Madison full justice until we revere him as a great poet.

    Not a literary poet like Wallace Stevens, or a prophet-poet like Abraham Lincoln, or even a peoples’ poet like Ronald Reagan.  Madison’s poetic genius was structural – a mastery of the interplay between democracy and individual liberty.  His poetic voice speaks to us in the harmony of the 462 words, 31 ideas, and 10 amendments – each in its perfectly chosen place and all interacting to form a coherent whole – that is the magnificent poem to democracy and individual freedom called the Bill of Rights.

    Today, we hear only broken fragments of Madison’s music.  Madison’s poetic vision of the interplay between democracy and individual freedom is hiding in plain sight in the brilliantly ordered text and structure of the Bill of Rights, but we have forgotten how to look for it.  Instead of seeking harmony and coherence in the Bill of Rights, the current Supreme Court majority reads the Bill of Rights as a set of self-contained commands, as if each clause – and at times, each word of each clause – existed in splendid isolation from the body of the constitutional text.  Consider the fate of the 45 words in Madison’s remarkable First Amendment:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble; and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.