George Will’s Embrace of Natural Law

Recently concepts of natural law have re-emerged as relevant to interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. George Will, the prominent political and legal commentator, has done so in at least three Washington Post columns and in a speech at the John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics. This post will discuss his views on this subject. A subsequent post will explore those of Judge Neil Gorsuch, the current nominee for Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose confirmation hearing starts tomorrow.

Background

Two important instruments of U.S. history are the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution. The Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Ninth Amendment, which is part of our Bill of Rights, states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”[1]

Although I am a retired attorney, I have not attempted to make my own analysis of how the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Ninth Amendment. Instead I rely on my recollection that the Declaration and this Amendment have not been major authorities in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions and Wikipedia’s conclusion that the Court has not used them to further limit government power.

Wikipedia also cites this statement by Justice Scalia in Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000): “The Declaration of Independence is not a legal prescription conferring powers upon the courts, and [the Ninth Amendment’s] . . . refusal to ‘deny or disparage’ other rights is far removed from affirming any of them, and even farther removed from authorizing judges to identify what they might be, and to enforce the judges’ list against laws duly enacted by the people.”

George Will’s Discussion of Natural Law

In a Washington Post column{2} Will argued that the Ninth Amendment’s protection of other rights “retained by the people” encompasses “natural law” rights, which are affirmed by these words of the Declaration of Independence:

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness—that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powered front he consent of the governed.”

Therefore, Will argues, “the Founders’ philosophy is infused into . . . [the Constitution] by construing . . . [the Constitution] as a charter of government that is, in Lincoln’s formulation, dedicated to [the above proposition in that Declaration].” As a result, says Will, “The drama of American democracy derives from the tension between the natural rights of the individual and the constructed right of the majority to make such laws as the majority desires. Natural rights are affirmed by the Declaration and a properly engaged judiciary is duty-bound to declare majority acts invalid when they abridge natural rights.”

“With the Declaration, Americans . . . began asserting rights that are universal because they are natural, meaning necessary for the flourishing of human nature.”

Will in this article does not go on to identify specific natural rights that are so encompassed by the Declaration. Presumably Will would not limit the protections of these words of the Declaration to those who were covered at the time of its proclamation in 1766: white men of property. In any event, his suggestion provides another “originalist” approach to interpreting the Constitution, an approach that is more open-ended than that promulgated by Justice Scalia.

George Will’s Speech at John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics

Additional light on George Will’s thoughts about natural law is shed by an adaption of his December 2012 speech at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, University of Washington at St. Louis.[3]

He asserts that although he himself is non-religious, he believes that “religion has been, and can still be, supremely important and helpful to the flourishing of our democracy” and that “the idea of natural rights [does not] require a religious foundation, or even that the founders uniformly thought it did. It is, however, indubitably the case that natural rights are especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.” Moreover, Will believes that the founders, who were not particularly religious themselves, “understood that Christianity, particularly in its post-Reformation ferments, fostered attitudes and aptitudes associated with, and useful to, popular government. Protestantism’s emphasis on the individual’s direct, unmediated relationship with God and the primacy of individual conscience and choice subverted conventions of hierarchical societies in which deference was expected from the many toward the few.”

According to Will, the founders “understood that natural rights could not be asserted, celebrated, and defended unless nature, including human nature, was regarded as a normative rather than a merely contingent fact. This was a view buttressed by the teaching of Biblical religion that nature is not chaos but rather is the replacement of chaos by an order reflecting the mind and will of the Creator. This is the Creator who endows us with natural rights that are inevitable, inalienable, and universal — and hence the foundation of democratic equality. And these rights are the foundation of limited government — government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.”

The U.S. Declaration of Independence asserts that “important political truths are not merely knowable, they are self-evident, meaning they can be known by any mind not clouded by ignorance or superstition. [As it states, “it is self-evidently true that ‘all men are created equal.’ Equal not only in their access to the important political truths, but also in being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” [The Declaration goes on to state], ‘[T]o secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.’ Government’s primary purpose is to secure pre-existing rights. Government does not create rights; it does not dispense them.”

“Biblical religion is concerned with asserting and defending the dignity of the individual. Biblical religion teaches that individual dignity is linked to individual responsibility and moral agency. Therefore, Biblical religion should be wary of the consequences of government untethered from the limited (and limiting) purpose of securing natural rights.”

Will’s Obituary for Antonin Scalia

In the obituary Will praised the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia for his championing the principles of judicial modesty: “textualism and originalism: A justice’s job is to construe the text of the Constitution or of statutes by discerning and accepting the original meaning the words had to those who ratified or wrote them.” Moreover, said Will, Scalia “was a Roman candle of sparkling jurisprudential theories leavened by acerbic witticisms.”[4]

In Will’s opinion, “Democracy’s drama derives from the tension between the natural rights of individuals and the constructed right of the majority to have its way. Natural rights are affirmed by the Declaration of Independence; majority rule, circumscribed and modulated, is constructed by the Constitution.” Moreover, “as the Goldwater Institute’s Timothy Sandefur argues, the Declaration is logically as well as chronologically prior to the Constitution. The latter enables majority rule. It is, however, the judiciary’s duty to prevent majorities from abridging natural rights. After all, it is for the securing of such rights, the Declaration declares, that ‘governments are instituted among men.’”[5]

Will, however, does not attempt to reconcile his praise for Scalia with the Justice’s rejection of the Declaration as important for constitutional analysis.

Will’s Questions for Judge Gorsuch

In another Washington Post column, Will suggested questions to be asked Judge Gorsuch at his confirmation hearings.[6] Here are some of those questions:

  • Is popular sovereignty (majorities rights) or liberty the essence of the American project?
  • Was the purpose of the 14th Amendment’s “privilege and immunities” clause to place certain subjects beyond the reach of majorities?
  • Was the 14th Amendment’s “privilege and immunities” clause’s purpose to ensure that the natural rights of all citizens would be protected from abridgment by their states?
  • Was the Supreme Court wrong in the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases that essentially erased the privileges and immunities clause, holding that it did not secure natural rights (e.g., the right to enter contracts and earn a living)? If so, should it be overruled?
  • Do you agree with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. who has said the doctrine ofstare decisis — previous court decisions are owed respect — is not an “inexorable command”?
  • Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s division of liberties between those deemed to be fundamental and thus subjecting any restrictions on them to strict scrutiny and all others whose restrictions are subjected only to “rational basis” scrutiny?
  • What, in your opinion, is the role of the Ninth Amendment in constitutional law?
  • Are there limits to Congress’ power over interstate commerce other than those enumerated in the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution)?
  • Was the Supreme Court correct in the 2005 Kelo v. City of New London case upholding a city’s seizure of private property not to facilitate construction of a public structure or to cure blight, but for the “public use” of transferring it to a wealthier private interest that would pay more taxes?
  • What limits, if any, are imposed upon Congress’ delegation of powers to administrative agencies by Article I of the Constitution’s provision: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress”?
  • Was the Supreme Court correct in Citizens United that Americans do not forfeit their First Amendment rights when they come together in incorporated entities to speak collectively?
  • Is it constitutional for Congress, by regulating political spending, to control the quantity and timing of political speech?
  • Would you feel bound to follow a previous Supreme Court decision that did not evaluate evidence of the original meaning of the Constitution and was, in your view, in conflict with it?

Conclusion

Although I do not generally agree with many of George Will’s political opinions, I think that the linkage of the Ninth Amendment and the Declaration of Independence makes sense and should be explored more fully in future constitutional litigation. However, it is not so easy to make the next step of identifying additional principles of natural law that could impose limits on the federal and state governments.

The Declaration’s statement that human beings are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights is part of that difficulty. First the First Amendment to the Constitution bans the federal government’s establishment of a religion. Second, there are now so many different religions in the world and in the U.S. Although as a Christian I believe that at least all of the major world religions honor peace and hospitality and that they all agree on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, I find it difficult see how that leads to principles of natural law that are useful. For example, I find it difficult to see how this linkage leads to the conclusion that the Citizens United case was correctly decided, as Will suggests.

In addition, although I have not studied the underlying sources, I am intrigued by the notion that the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to encompass all natural law rights of U.S. citizens and that the Slaughter-House Cases were wrongly decided.

In any event, we all should thank George Will for proposing interesting questions for Judge Gorsuch in his confirmation hearing. I am reasonably confident that most, if not all, of them will be asked and answered.

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[1] United States Declaration of Independence, Wikipedia;  Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Wikipedia. A prior post discussed the First Congress’ adoption of the Bill of Rights after ratification by the requisite number of states.

[2] Will, Maybe Gorsuch will fill in blanks left by Scalia, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2017).

[3] Will, Religion and the American Republic, Nat’l Affairs (Summer 2013). John C. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, was Attorney General of Missouri, 1969-1976, and U.S. Senator for that state, 1976-1995.

[4] Will, In Memoriam: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia 1936-2016, Wash. Post (Feb. 14, 2016).

[5]  Timothy Sandefur  is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and Adjunct Scholar with the Cato Institute. He also is the author of The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty (2013),  which is a more extensive exposition of Will’s argument that the Declaration and the Ninth Amendment need to be important markers in constitutional analysis and litigation. Moreover, Sandefur argues that the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 recommitted the U.S. to the primacy of liberty and defined the terms of U.S. citizenship that unfortunately was demolished by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1873 decision in the Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873).

[6] Will, Questions for Judge Gorsuch, Wash. Post (Mar. 17, 2017).

Richard and Mildred Loving’s Legal Entanglement with Anti-Miscegenation Laws

Last Saturday I saw the beautiful new movie “Loving,” which tells the true story about the love between Richard Perry Loving, a white man, and Mildred Delores Jeter, a black woman, who were married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia. Soon thereafter they returned to their home in Caroline County, Virginia, where they established their marital abode and where they were criminally prosecuted and convicted for violating the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. They then were sentenced to one year in prison, but with suspension of the imposition of that sentence for 25 years on condition they live outside the state, which they did by returning to the District of Columbia.

Later the movie depicts  their challenge with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to the constitutionality of these Virginia statutes with the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruling in their favor.[1] Below is an actual photograph of the couple and one of the actors (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton) who played the couple in the movie.

lovings

loving-movie

 

 

 

 

 

This beautiful movie prompted the following report of the legal details of their entanglement with anti-miscegenation laws.

Legal Proceedings in State Court

Their legal problems started with an October 1958 grand jury indictment charging the couple with violating the following provisions of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages:

  • “Punishment for marriage. — If any white person intermarry with a colored person, or any colored person intermarry with a white person, he shall be guilty of a felony and shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary for not less than one nor more than five years.” (Va. Code § 2-59)
  • “Leaving State to evade law.—If any white person and colored person shall go out of this State, for the purpose of being married, and with the intention of returning, and be married out of it, and afterwards return to and reside in it, cohabiting as man and wife, they shall be punished as provided in § 20-59, and the marriage shall be governed by the same law as if it had been solemnized in this State. The fact of their cohabitation here as man and wife shall be evidence of their marriage.” (Va. Code § 2-58)

On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty to those charges and, as previously mentioned were sentenced to one year in jail, but with suspension of the sentence for a period of 25 years on the condition that the couple leave the State and not return to Virginia together. The trial judge stated in his opinion that:

  • “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The Lovings then returned to the District of Columbia, where they established their home for at least the next eight and a half years.

In the meantime, nearly five years after their convictions, on November 6, 1963, with the aid of attorneys from the ACLU, they filed a motion in the Virginia state trial court to vacate the judgment of conviction and set aside the sentence on the ground that the statutes which they had violated were unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Nearly 15 months later, on January 22, 1965, the state trial judge denied the motion to vacate the sentences, and the Lovings perfected an appeal to the state’s Supreme Court of Appeals.[2]

On March 7, 1966, the seven justices of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the anti-miscegenation statutes and, after modifying the sentence, affirmed the convictions.[3]  The entire opinion was based upon that court’s having upheld the constitutional validity of these statutes in a 1955 case (Naim v. Naim) and concluding that there had not been any change in the law on this issue in the subsequent 11 years. As the Virginia court stated:

  • “Our one and only function in this instance is to determine whether, for sound judicial considerations, the Naim case should be reversed. Today, more than ten years since that decision was handed down by this court, a number of states still have miscegenation statutes and yet there has been no new decision reflecting adversely upon the validity of such statutes. We find no sound judicial reason, therefore, to depart from our holding in the Naim According that decision all of the weight to which it is entitled under the doctrine of stare decisis, we hold it to be binding upon us here and rule that Code, §§ 20-58 and 20-59, under which the defendants were convicted and sentenced, are not violative of the Constitution of Virginia or the Constitution of the United States.”

Proceedings in U.S. Supreme Court

The Lovings appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which noted probable jurisdiction on December 12, 1966.[4]

After the attorneys’ briefing and oral arguments, The Supreme Court on June 12, 1967, issued its unanimous decision holding that the Virginia anti-miscegenation statutes were unconstitutional.[5]

In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted that the two Virginia statutes in question were “part of a comprehensive statutory scheme aimed at prohibiting and punishing interracial marriages,”[6] that they were part of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, which was adopted in the “period of extreme nativism” of 1924 and that “[p]enalties for miscegenation arose as an incident of slavery, and have been common in Virginia since the colonial period.” Moreover, the opinion recognized that Virginia then was “one of 16 States which prohibit and punish marriages on the basis of racial classifications.”[7]

After rejecting various arguments advanced by the State of Virginia, the Chief Justice said, “There is patently no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination which justifies this classification. The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications must stand on their own justification, as measures designed to maintain White Supremacy. We have consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

The Court’s opinion also concluded that the Virginia “statutes also deprive the Lovings of liberty without due process of law in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

“Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. . . . To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Conclusion

 From a 2016 perspective, it is difficult for this blogger to believe that only 50 years ago 16 states in the U.S. still had anti-miscegenation laws and were trying to defend their constitutionality. As the movie clearly points out, the Lovings did not have the financial means to mount a challenge to these laws, and the legal assistance of organizations like the ACLU is absolutely necessary for such litigation to be conducted. [8]

While the various phases of the litigation were proceeding over nearly nine years, Mr. and Mrs. Loving had to live with this legal cloud hanging over them that prevented them from living in their native Virginia.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, the number of interracial marriages in the U.S. has increased from 0.4% in 1960 to 0.7% in 1970, 1.9% in 1980, 2.8% in 1990, 7.0% in 2000 and 10.0% in 2010. The date of the Supreme Court decision (June 12) is now remembered in the U.S. as “Loving Day” and the decision itself was cited as precedent in federal court decisions invalidating restrictions on same-sex marriage.

This case also reminded me of the personal story of Lawrence Hill, the noted Canadian author of “The Book of Negroes” about a young African woman who is kidnapped from her native village and taken by a slave ship to the U.S., where she becomes literate and is hired by the British forces at the end of the American Revolutionary War to create the actual Book of Negroes to register those Negroes who helped the British and who thereby were eligible to evacuate Manhattan with their forces. As discussed in a prior post, Hill’s parents— a black father and a white mother —were U.S. citizens who emigrated to Canada the day after they were married in 1953 in the District of Columbia in order to escape racial discrimination and anti-miscegenation laws. Both of them were involved in the human rights movement, an influence Hill readily acknowledges.

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[1] Dargis, Review: In ‘Loving,’ They Loved. A Segregated Virginia Did Not Love Them Back, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2016)  The movie is directed by Jeff Nicols and stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.

[2] The Virginia trial court presumably was pressed finally to issue its decision on the motion to vacate by the Lovings commencing on October 28, 1964, a class action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia requesting that a three-judge court be convened to declare the Virginia anti-miscegenation statutes unconstitutional and to enjoin state officials from enforcing their convictions. On February 11, 1965, the three-judge District Court continued the case to allow the Lovings to present their constitutional claims to the highest state court.

[3] Loving v. Commonwealth,206 Va. 924, 147 S.E.2d 78 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1966) ; Naim v. Naim, 197 Va. 80, 87 S.E.2d 749 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1955). remanded, 350 U.S. 891 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1955), aff’d, 197 Va. 734, 90 S.E.2d 849 (Va. Sup. Ct. 1956), appeal dismissed, 350 U.S. 985 (U.S. Sup. Ct. 1956).

[4] Loving v. Virginia, 385 U.S. 986 (1966).

[5] Loving v. Virginia, 386 U.S. 1 (1967). Mr. Justice Stewart submitted a brief concurring opinion to reiterate his  “belief that ‘it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.’”

[6] Other provisions of the Virginia statutes automatically voided all marriages between “a white person and a colored person” without any judicial proceeding (§ 20-57) and defined “white persons” and “colored persons and Indians” for purposes of the statutory prohibitions (§§ 20-54 and 1-14).

[7] The other states with anti-miscegenation laws were Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. (Justices Upset All Bans On Interracial Marriage, N.Y. Times (June 13, 1967).)

[8] As discussed in an earlier post, I was a pro bono volunteer attorney for the Minnesota ACLU chapter in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Minneapolis Police Department raid and arrests of citizens at a political fundraiser.