Equality and Liberty

  • September 19, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law, @atibaellis. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    On September 17, 1787, the framers signed the U.S. Constitution. The document they approved 227 years ago is a work of genius as it provided a democratic republic that has endured economic turmoil, mass insurrection, and disasters of various sorts -- forces that have toppled other democracies.  The U.S. Constitution, the oldest enduring written constitution in the world today, has endured and preserved democracy based upon rule of law.

    Although one might point to the advantages and disadvantages of federalism, the dynamics of enumerated powers, or the political compromises that undergird separation of powers as powerful tactics the Constitution deploys, it is not in any of these mechanisms where the genius of the Constitution lies. Its true genius is its mechanism to allow we the people to reinvent our democracy as our times and ethics demand. It is this power of reinvention that has allowed our constitution to endure and matter to the world. 

    This power of democratic transition is best illustrated in the way our Constitution has been reinvented, over time, from a document that enshrined inequality to one that strives for equality. The Constitution of 1787 reflected and implemented a social theory we would not recognize or sanction today. The Constitution endorsed states’ rights (though this name would not be invented until a century later to protect slavery) and left it to the states to structure the social relations of the nation. Thus, despite a Bill of Rights that protected the rights of citizens, the Constitution allowed the chattel slavery of Africans to endure in the United States when it was being abolished in other parts of the world. The Constitution allowed women to be treated as property. Despite our hymns to constitutional genius, the lived experience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was rooted in inequality.

    To focus merely on the genius of the original document (and as a consequence, elevate those times and those founders) is to fixate on an originalism that suffered subordination and endorsed a hierarchy. And, as our experience with the Civil War illustrates, the country came within a hair’s breath of being dismantled by faction and racism due to an unwillingness to recreate the United States.

    Yet our Constitution endures because it has embedded within it mechanisms by which our evolving notions of equality and justice may receive constitutional protection from the tyranny of caste and status. Though volumes have been written on this topic, it is worth remembering in our celebration of the Constitution that the amendment process and the wisdom of legislators and judges who sought to make manifest the idea of equality helped to preserve the Union at its most imperiled points. One needs only recount the work of Reconstruction, the long march from segregation to Civil Rights, the movement towards women’s equality, and our modern day same-sex marriage cases to see how the long arc of equality has progressed. And all of these changes have been enabled through an American constitutionalism that, in the words of Harper v. Virginia, is not shackled to the political theory of a particular era.

  • September 18, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor Law, UCLA School of Law. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    In 1961, Yale Law School professor Alexander Bickel wrote a law review article extolling what he called the “passive virtues” of judicial decision-making. By this, Bickel meant that the Supreme Court might achieve better, more enduring results if instead of boldly asserting a constitutional vision the justices took small, narrow steps. He didn’t mean that the Court should stay away from controversial issues so much as lead the nation in a dialogue, venturing in on occasion to articulate important principles but allowing issues to percolate over time.

    In an era where the Supreme Court is known for its aggressive assertions of power, most notoriously in deciding a presidential election in Bush v. Gore, it may be hard to take seriously any notion of a passive or tentative Court. In recent years, some liberal scholars such as Cass Sunstein have promoted judicial minimalism, though mostly one suspects because of the conservative makeup of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts. Yet if there is one area where the Court has seemed to follow Bickel’s lead, it is LGBT rights and, in particular, marriage equality.

    Consider that the Court has ruled on the constitutionality of laws discriminating or harming LGBT people in three major cases over the past twenty years: Romer v. Evans, striking down Colorado’s statewide ban on local anti-discrimination ordinances; Lawrence v. Texas, voiding bans on same-sex sexual relationships; and United States v. Windsor, invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act. These cases have been celebrated for expanding the constitutional promise of equal citizenship to LGBT people. And the justices have been criticized, too, for not going far enough. Romer refused to say that sexual orientation was a suspect classification triggering heightened scrutiny. Lawrence refused even to say that same-sex sexual activity was a fundamental right. Windsor was decided the same day as Hollingsworth v. Perry, where the Court used procedural issues to avoid ruling directly on the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage. 

    Such criticism is certainly appropriate given that the Court’s half-steps leave LGBT people in limbo. After Romer and Lawrence, federal courts continued to uphold other laws discriminating against LGBT people, such as bans on adoption. Windsor and Hollingsworth literally left LGBT people in loving relationships at the altar, still unable to marry in the majority of states. This state of affairs must be changed and soon. For many, rights delayed are rights denied.

  • September 17, 2014

    by Paul Guequierre

    It has been apparent for quite some time that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on marriage equality in the not-so-distant future. Since last year’s historic decisions striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and putting an end to California’s Prop. 8, court after court has struck down state marriage bans across the country.

    Last month Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court will not "[duck] the issue" if a marriage equality case comes properly before the court and predicted that would happen by June 2016 at the latest. Last night, Justice Ginsburg was talking marriage equality again. Speaking to an audience in Minnesota, the Associated Press reports Ginsburg said cases pending before the circuit covering Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee would probably play a role in the high court's timing. She said "there will be some urgency" if that appeals court allows same-sex marriage bans to stand. Such a decision would run contrary to a legal trend favoring gay marriage and force the Supreme Court to step in sooner, she predicted.

    Now the question is which case or cases will make it to the high court. The Associated Press reports Ginsburg didn't get into the merits of any particular case or any state's gay marriage ban, but she marveled at the "remarkable" shift in public perception of same-sex marriage that she attributes to gays and lesbians being more open about their relationships. Same-sex couples can legally wed in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Bans that have been overturned in some other states continue to make their way through the courts.

  • September 15, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog argues that the ban on same-sex marriage in Arizona is likely to fall soon.

    In The New York Times, Jeremy W. Peters writes about how the partisan balance of the federal courts has shifted in little more than a decade.

    Jeff John Roberts of Gigaom questions what tech firm control over newsrooms means for public interest battles.

    Emily Bazelon writes in Slate that the accompanied minor crisis at the border is forcing legal experts to consider how the U.S. should determine grants of asylum.

    In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank argues that the future grand jury trial in Ferguson is likely to be a farce given the prosecutor’s attitude toward the case. 

  • September 12, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Martha Bergmark of Voices for Civil Justice writes for CNN on the many children facing deportation hearings alone after seeking refuge at the border. The ACSblog recently featured  research on unaccompanied migrants from Voices for Civil Justice.

    In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick explains how voter ID laws may actually worsen voter fraud.

    Norm Ornstein writes in The Atlantic on the need for a bipartisan coalition to challenge the abuses of the criminal justice system.

    The Center for Reproductive Rights reports on the Missouri legislature’s decision to force women to wait 72 hours for abortion services.

    John Nichols reports for The Nation that a vote to advance a constitutional amendment on campaign finance is stalled by filibuster threats.

    In The New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall argues that the current campaign finance system is “incompatible with the goals of democracy.”