Rand Paul on Civil Rights and the Constitution

April 10th, 2013

Today, Rand Paul gave a lengthy address at Howard University, where he touched on a number of constitutional issues.

First, he focused on the relationship between the Constitution and protecting minority rights, channeling a process-theory of liberty:

Of strong importance to me is the defense of minority rights, not just racial minorities, but ideological and religious minorities. If our government does not protect the rights of minorities, then democratic majorities could simply legislate away our freedoms. The bill of rights and the civil war amendments protect us against the possibility of an oppressive federal or state government. The fact that we are a Constitutional Republic means that certain inalienable rights are protected even from democratic majorities.

Second, he talked about how the Republican Party had been the party of Civil Rights (harkening back to the Reconstruction Amendments).

No Republican questions or disputes civil rights. I have never waivered in my support for civil rights or the civil rights act. The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview. What gets lost is that the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights.

Paul adds that the difference between the parties concerns *how* those rights are protected. To Paul, decentralized power, combined with Section 5 Powers can be used as a tool to oppose discrimination.

Because Republicans believe that the federal government is limited in its function-some have concluded that Republicans are somehow inherently insensitive to minority rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Republicans do, indeed, still believe many rights remain with the people and states respectively. When some people hear that, they tune us out and say: he’s just using code words for the state’s right to discriminate, for the state’s right to segregate and abuse. But that’s simply not true. Many Republicans do believe that decentralization of power is the best policy, that government is more efficient, more just, and more personal when it is smaller and more local. But Republicans also realize that there are occasions of such egregious injustice that require federal involvement, and that is precisely what the 14th amendment and the Civil Rights Act were intended to do-protect citizens from state and local tyranny. The fourteenth amendment says, “No state shall . . .” The fourteenth amendment did change the constitution to give a role for the federal government in protecting citizenship and voting regardless of race.

In the past, Rand Paul has implied that he was opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though he has doubled back on that statement. His comments seem to reflect that, as he praises the act that took down segregation:

It is a stain on our history that integration didn’t occur until more than 100 years later in the South.   That in the 1960’s we were still fighting to integrate public transportation and schools is and was an embarrassment. The story of emancipation, voting rights and citizenship, from Fredrick Douglas until the modern civil rights era, is in fact the history of the Republican Party.

I wonder if he viewed the Civil Rights Act as justified by Section 5, rather than the Commerce Clause. That always seemed like a better fit for me.

Echoing a theme he talked about during his filibuster, Paul talked about the case of Buchanan v. Warley, in which the Supreme Court struck down Louisville’s discriminatory zoning law based on (drumroll) liberty of contract:

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s Democrat-controlled legislature voted against the 13th, the 14th, and the 15th amendments. William Warley was a black Republican in Louisville. He was born toward the end of the nineteenth century. He was a founder of Louisville’s NAACP but he is most famous for fighting and overturning the notorious Louisville segregated housing ordinance. Warley bought a house in the white section in defiance of a city segregation law. The case, Buchanan v. Warley, was finally decided in 1917 and the Supreme Court held unanimously that Kentucky law could not forbid the sale of a house based on race. The Republican Party’s history is rich and chock full of emancipation and black history.

This line really struck me as an effective juxtaposition of welfare-state approach to improving lives v. free-market approach:

African Americans languished below white Americans in every measure of economic success and the Depression was especially harsh for those at the lowest rung of poverty. The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible-the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets. Now, Republicans face a daunting task. Several generations of black voters have never voted Republican and are not very open to even considering the option. Democrats still promise unlimited federal assistance and Republicans promise free markets, low taxes, and less regulations that we believe will create more jobs. The Democrat promise is tangible and puts food on the table, but too often doesn’t lead to jobs or meaningful success. The Republican promise is for policies that create economic growth. Republicans believe lower taxes, less regulation, balanced budgets, a solvent Social Security and Medicare will stimulate economic growth.

He closed with a point that is forgotten all too-often. That segregation was promulgated by the government.

The history of African-American repression in this country rose from government-sanctioned racism. Jim Crow laws were a product of bigoted state and local governments. Big and oppressive government has long been the enemy of freedom, something black Americans know all too well. We must always embrace individual liberty and enforce the constitutional rights of all Americans-rich and poor, immigrant and native, black and white. Such freedom is essential in achieving any longstanding health and prosperity.

I have been very impressed with Paul’s knowledge of constitutional history and views on individual liberty. I know he has read closely Randy Barnett and David Bernstein’s work. This is somewhat promising for the grand old party.