McDonald and Overruling Slaughter-House. A Response to Professor Kerr

November 18th, 2009

At Volokh, Orin Kerr gazes into his crystal ball to predict how the Supreme Court will respond to Gura’s arguments regarding the Second Amendment and the Privileges or Immunities Clause.

In summary, he predicts:

  • Thomas will vote in favor of P/I in light of his vote in Saenz
  • Scalia will not vote for P/I; Scalia thinks that Substantive Due Process is wrong, but will not overrule it becuase of the reliance interest built up over the years
  • Roberts and Alito, though Originalists, are not revolutionaries willing to give the judiciary the new power to “strike down legislation because it is inconsistent with’natural rights,’ including ‘the right to obtain happiness and safety,’ with some of those natural rights undefinable “in their entire extent and precise nature.”
  • Kennedy is not an originalist, and will incorporate through Due Process.
  • Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor will view Gura breif as attempt to rehabilitate Lochner, and won’t buy it.

In an article I co-authored with Ilya Shapiro fortchoming in the Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy, titled Opening Pandora’s Box? Privileges or Immunities, The Constitution in 2020, and Properly Incorporating the Second Amendment we deal with a lot of these points, so I will try to summarize the argument here (we will be posting a PDF of the article later this week).

First, I think Orin presents a binary choice; incorporate through Due Process OR incorporate through privileges or immunities.  The question presented asked about both routes of incorporation. Neither path is by necessity mutually exclusive. As Gura’s brief makes clear, the Court could incorporate through the Due Process Clause, and alternatively recognize that the right to keep and bear arms is also among the Privileges or Immunities of Citizenship.  The Court need not displace 100 years of substantive due process jurisprudence with this single case. And from a practical perspective, basically the entire Bill of Rights has been incorporated. So, unless some people start clamoring about states quartering troops in theirs homes, this would be a one time deal. Such a holding would do little to upset the apple cart, or as we put it, open Pandora’s Box.

Second, I think Orin over-simplifies Scalia’s views on originalism and stare decisis. Our article shows that Scalia, while on the Supreme Court, has never voted in favor of a substantive due process incorporation. The last such case was in 1982. Can Scalia really cite the doctrine that he excoriated in Lawrence, Casey, and elsewhere based solely on reliance interests?  It is no secret Scalia likes guns, and he wants to incorporate the 2nd Amendment. But he does not want to enlarge substantive due process. Is he stuck between a rock and a substantively hard place? The Privileges or Immunities Clause provides an alternative method for Scalia. He could write a classic originalist opinion tracing the right to bear arms during Reconstruction, and find that it applies to the State.

Third, the Court does not need to rehabilitate Lochner (another shameless plug for David Bernstein’s forthcoming book). In fact, the Court can take a narrow view of Privileges or Immunities solely as an incorporative methodology, and leave to a later day the protection of substantive rights.  But this possibility raises another issue. While Orin is quite right to say the liberal Justices would be afraid to bring back Lochner, in a different case, the Justices may see the Privileges or Immunities Clause as a means to constitutionalize certain positive rights (welfare, education, health care, etc.). There is a growing body of literature, springing from the Constitution in 2020 project, that aims to use P/I as a means to elevate positive social rights to constitutional rights.

So, while Justice Breyer may not be willing to recognize the right to keep and bear arms as a Privilege or Immunity, the Court in a few years, with a much different composition, may be willing to recognize a constitutional right to health care, for example. While these types of arguments failed under due process and equal protection, privileges or immunities jurisprudence will be written on a clean slate.

For these reasons, and others mentioned in our article, we ask the Court not to punt on P/I for future generations, but rather to assert an originalist jurisprudence; namely, adopt the Washington v. Glucksberg test. By looking at only those rights deeply rooted in our nation’s history, the Court can find the right to keep and bear arms is such a right, and thus incorporate it to the state.