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.
Americans are united in professing respect for the Constitution, but they are deeply divided over what it actually means and how it ought to be interpreted. These disagreements have roiled our public life for decades. Everybody who follows politics knows about the clashes between the liberal proponents of judicial activism and the conservative defenders of judicial deference. These arguments go on and on, with neither side succeeding in persuading the other of the superior merits of its theory. Faced with this ongoing deadlock, we wonder if there is any way to achieve unity on the meaning of the Constitution.
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.
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.
This 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.
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?
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.
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.
In a detailed historical review of Timothy Sandefur’s new book entitled The Conscience of the Constitution, Adam Tate raises the practice of federalism as a principled method that representatives used in the early republic for handling difficult issues. Rather than face political paralysis or endure efforts at national coercion via constitutional provisions regarding slavery or religious freedom, for example, Tate notes that the Founders looked to the states and their separate interests as the best solution. So Tate argues that there was no natural rights code of law with exact specifications nationally applied.
If we were such a republic, then why were natural rights not relied upon in the tough cases and appealed to with precision? If there was consensus on natural rights as the baseline, then surely it would have governed these disputes, rendering them noncontroversial. More plausible is that the natural law and natural rights were seen as an ultimate source of law, but what this meant in concrete application was not firmly agreed upon by the Framers. As a result, particular resolution of constitutional questions via a detailed code of natural rights wasn’t ventured.
Timothy Sandefur’s The Conscience of the Constitution contributes to the debate over the best way to limit the powers of the United States government in order to secure liberty. Sandefur, a lawyer and legal scholar, believes that “American constitutional history has always hovered in the mutual resistance of two principles: the right of each individual to be free, and the power of the majority to make rules.” (1) For Sandefur adherence to the natural rights theory of Declaration of Independence manages the tension between the two principles.