Limits on Limiting Immigration

While styled as an anti-immigrant movement, according to historian Tyler G. Anbinder in his book, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s, the American Party (the “Know Nothings”) of the 1850s did not widely advocate laws that would cap the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. Rather, they channeled their anti-immigrant sentiments most directly into policies that would delay citizenship for new immigrants for a number of years (and sometimes even for decades). The delay aimed to provide time to insure a measure of assimilation for new residents prior to citizenship. (Policies also…

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God Talk and Americans’ Belief in Inalienable Rights

I posted earlier this week regarding whether Americans still believe the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that they “consent” to laws and taxes through their legislative representatives. There may be good reasons Americans no longer believe they really consent to the laws their representatives enact, but it is a striking change from the beliefs articulated during the founding era.

In considering whether Americans still believe the Declaration of Independence, we next consider the most-well known section in the Declaration, “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 powers from the consent of the governed.”

There are, of course, entire books devoted to these few lines. A few observations, however. First, what is the link between there being a creator and persons being endowed with “unalienable” (or inalienable) rights?

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How Rights Are Like Taffy

A statue of Thomas Jefferson includes this figure holding a tablet bearing several names that different belief systems have for a higher power, titled “Religious Freedom, 1786.”

Over at the Law and Religion Forum, we are hosting an online symposium on a very interesting article by Professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz, “Two Concepts of Religious Liberty: The Natural Rights and Moral Autonomy Approaches to the Free Exercise of Religion.” Muñoz’s basic claim is a historical one about the nature of the Founders’ constitutional commitment to religious freedom: They supported a narrow, but powerful, right of religious free exercise that protected fairly absolutely what were thought to be certain core features of religiosity—such as worship—but that did not protect the panoply of religious “interests” that might be dear to any given constituency.

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Michael McConnell on the Ninth Amendment

One of the puzzles in constitutional law has been the original meaning of the Ninth Amendment. Some years ago, during his unsuccessful confirmation hearings, Judge Robert Bork analogized our lack of understanding of the Amendment to the situation where the language of a constitutional provision was obscured by an inkblot. He argued that since we don’t understand the provision, we are in no better position to enforce it than if an ink blot covered it.

Over the years, various explanations have been offered for the amendment. Some have argued that it protects enumerated natural rights to the same extent as the enumerated constitutional rights.  Others have interpreted it to have a much less significant role.

In my view, the best interpretation of the Amendment is supplied by Michael McConnell in a relatively recent law review article. At the beginning of my scholarly career, I had come upon the same idea, but was persuaded not to write it up. My mistake, although I don’t think I would have done as good a job as McConnell does.

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The American Revolution and the Pamphlet Debate: A Conversation with Gordon Wood

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III at Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.This next edition of Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with the great American Founding historian Gordon Wood on a new two volume collection entitled the American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate that he has edited for Library of America. We discuss these foundational debates between British and colonial statesmen that contested the nature of law, sovereignty, rights, and constitutionalism and would serve as the basis of the revolution and lead to the creation of America.

The Declaration: A Conversation with Barry Shain

declThis conversation with Professor Barry Shain, editor of Liberty Fund's new volume, The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context, explores the vigorous debates between the colonists and the British Empire that shaped our country's charter document of independence.

Who Are the Guardians of the Natural Rights Polity?

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The status of judges in the constitutional regime is fundamentally a question of the place of politics, rightly understood, in human life—a point illustrated by the thoughtful exchanges between Richard Reinsch and Randy Barnett in this space and at Volokh. Reinsch argues the danger of giving judges indeterminate power over unspecified natural rights. Barnett replies that these need not be specified; judges need only ensure that governmental power is reasonably used to promote permissible ends.

Theirs was a productive conversation, and it might be usefully expanded to the following question: Even granting a robust reading of the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, what is the basis, and what are the costs, of empowering judges to safeguard the rights therein contained?

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Dissenting from Natural Rights Nationalism: A Reply to Randy Barnett

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Many thanks to Randy Barnett for his very thoughtful response to my post “The Book of Judges,” which criticizes a natural rights constitutional jurisprudence. Barnett says I was going after a straw man—that real defenders of “judicial engagement” are not calling for a philosopher’s debate on the federal bench that would produce a settled list of the type and content of natural rights for federal judges to enforce. He isn’t about defining and specifying natural rights in judicial decisions. Instead, he notes that they exist, and they are protected in the Ninth Amendment and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

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The Book of Judges

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The restrained vision of the federal judiciary that has for some time dominated the jurisprudence of right-leaning American legal theorists and lawyers in this country is now under fire. In writings both academic and popular, many libertarian and classical liberal scholars clamor for the supposed symmetry of substantive due process or the bold recovery of an expansive listing of natural rights that is, we are told, embodied in the 9th Amendment, and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Even George Will has reversed his own prior position on judicial restraint to now favor “judicial engagement” to protect so-called non-fundamental liberties and unenumerated rights from the rule of majorities, or what some might call the carefully qualified majorities of our republican constitution.

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