Judge Gorsuch Might Be a Liberal Originalist on the Supreme Court

Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale Law School professor and the author of “The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era,” argues that not all devotees of “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution and statutes are what are ordinarily called conservatives and that Judge Neil Gorsuch might be a liberal member of this group.[1]

Originalists, the professor says, “believe that faithful constitutional interpreters must build on the solid bedrock of the Constitution’s text, as that text was originally understood when drafted and ratified.” However, he adds, “not all conservatives are originalists, nor are all originalists conservative. Most jurists, most of the time, follow modern judicial precedents rather than pondering first principles of constitutional text and history. Practical considerations also factor into most jurists’ decision making. Originalists are no different in this regard, but they are more apt to dwell on first principles of text and original meaning and to discard precedents violating these first principles.”

A group of “liberal originalist lawyers, the Constitutional Accountability Center, where I serve on the board of directors, has been particularly effective in bringing liberal originalist scholarship to judicial attention. This month, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and four liberal colleagues [in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado.] strengthened rules against racial animus in jury deliberations” in reliance . . . on the Center’s amicus brief and the historical scholarship it showcased” by another Yale Law School professor.

This case demonstrated that “originalists must honor not just the original understanding of words ratified in 1787-88, but also the letter and spirit of language added by later generations of amenders.”

Amar also noted “the extraordinary body of work of Steven G. Calabresi, who co-founded the conservative Federalist Society in the early 1980s and then clerked for Judge Bork and Justice Scalia. As “perhaps America’s pre-eminent conservative originalist,” [he] has shown that the 14th Amendment was plainly intended to apply the Bill of Rights to the states; that women’s equality was a central theme of that amendment, as originally understood; and that originalism in fact supports a right of same-sex marriage.”

Gorsuch, Amar asserts, “is a brainy and principled jurist” and his “embrace of originalism is honorable and admirable” and, if confirmed as seems likely, “may one day [be regarded] . . . as among the best of the century.”

==============================================

[1] Amar, What Gorsuch Has in Common with Liberals, N.Y. Times (Mar. 18, 2017).

 

 

 

 

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.

========================================

[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).