A Constitutional Burden of Proof

There’s been a lot of discussion of a memo written by Samuel Alito, President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, in which he stated “The constitution does not protect a right to abortion.” This sentence reminded me of language in Bowers v. Hardwick, since overruled, to the effect that the constitution does not protect a right to homosexual sodomy. Both statements are, of course, quite true. But both betray a growing—and troubling—conception of both government’s power and the purpose of the Bill of Rights.

There is, in fact, only one “right” protected by the Bill of Rights—the right to be free from government control over any of our behaviors or decisions, unless government has specifically been given the power to exercise such control. In other words, the citizen has no duty to find an affirmative right to engage in any particular activity; the burden of proof is on the government, which must demonstrate its authority to do whatever it is proposing to do.

Roe v. Wade is often said to have “legalized” abortion, but that is not an accurate description of the ruling, although the practical effect was the same. The Court said that the decision to abort or not prior to what used to be called “quickening” was one of many personal, “intimate” decisions that are none of the government’s business; that is, one of the many areas of our lives protected against the coercive power of the state. In Lawrence v. Texas, the case that overruled Hardwick, the Court said government simply lacks the authority to dictate the sexual conduct of consenting adults. 

If this seems like a quibble, it isn’t. We sometimes forget that the argument between the Federalists and anti-Federalists over the need for a Bill of Rights was never an argument about whether such rights should be protected. It was a debate between those who feared the future growth of state power and the “tyranny of the majority,” and thus wanted to “go on record” that certain government intrusions were off-limits, and those who argued that since the new government had only the powers specifically delegated to it, it simply had no authority to infringe individual liberties. They worried that efforts to list “protected” rights would allow people in future generations to argue that any rights not specifically listed were unprotected.

The Ninth and Tenth Amendments were the compromise: they reiterated that government does not have powers unless those powers have been specifically granted; and expressly stated that the failure to enumerate a right was not to be construed as evidence that such a right was not “retained” by the people or the individual states.    

Arguments that a “right to privacy” is not protected by the Constitution conveniently ignore the history and quite specific language of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments. That is why Judge Alito’s formulation concerns me.

I’m past worrying about the prospects for Roe—it won’t be overruled anyway. The Court will just keep limiting its reach until it is meaningless. I’m worried about a Supreme Court that begins each analysis by demanding to be shown where the rights in question are expressly protected. That isn’t the question. The question is: where is it written that government has been given the right to interfere?