Tag Archives: right to privacy

The Right To Privacy

What is the constitutional right to privacy, and why is it controversial?

The term “privacy” is part of the problem: when Americans think about privacy, they think about someone peeking through their window, or riffling through their personal documents–invading areas that we all believe to be…well.. private.

That limited notion of privacy is implicated in the Fourth Amendment’s protection of our right to be “secure in our persons, papers and effects.” But the constitution arguably erects a zone of protection around a different and more expansive type of privacy–the protection of individual autonomy, what we might term the individual’s right to “self-government.” That kind of privacy, protected for the past fifty-plus years by the doctrine of substantive due process, bars the government from making decisions that most of us believe are properly the province of the individual citizen.

Those areas are outlined throughout the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment forbids government from either censoring or requiring our speech or favoring certain theologies or religions–essentially, the First Amendment requires government to respect the individual’s liberty of conscience. The (overwhelmingly forgotten) Third Amendment says government cannot force us to “quarter soldiers” in our homes (a person’s home is her castle…). The Fourth Amendment explicitly requires government to respect our “security” in our persons and effects absent probable cause to invade that security.

The greatly  under-appreciated Ninth Amendment specifically asserts that rights not explicitly enumerated nevertheless are retained by the people.

That language in the Ninth Amendment was intended to address the concerns of those Founders like Alexander Hamilton who worried that the “enumeration” of protected rights in the Bill of Rights might come to be considered exhaustive–that the omission of certain rights from the list would someday prompt self-declared “originalists” to ignore equally important liberties, including those necessary to the realization of the rights that were enumerated. When the Supreme Court ruled that government had no right to decide whether married couples could use contraception, the Court based its ruling on the proposition that a fair reading of the Bill of Rights required recognition of a “penumbra” protecting a zone of privacy–a zone of personal autonomy– that government was bound to respect.

Scholars and pundits like to poke fun at the term “penumbra,” and the language may well have been ill-chosen, but the Court’s insistence that any fair reading of the Bill of Rights requires respect for that enhanced zone of personal privacy was absolutely correct.

Recognition that the Bill of Rights protects personal or “intimate” decisions from government busybodies–the doctrine of substantive due process, or the right to privacy– has been the legal basis for recognition of rights most of us consider fundamental to the fair operation of modern society: a woman’s right to control her own reproduction, the right of competent adults to engage in sexual activity with other consenting adults, the recognition of same-sex marriage…

If today’s Court eviscerates or overrules that doctrine–if it refuses to respect the line between decisions that are properly left to individuals and those that can properly be made by the legislatures of various states, the United States will head down the path of the Taliban. The only difference will be the content of the theology that the state will impose.

Back in the day, when I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I used to explain that the Bill of Rights answered a simple question: who decides? Who decides what prayer you say, or if you pray at all? Who decides what book you read, what political ideology you adopt? Who decides whether you marry, and who? Who decides whether you procreate? The whole point of the Bill of Rights was to ensure that government stayed in its lane–that the state refrained from making decisions that were none of governments’ business.

Today’s radical Court is intent upon erasing those lane lines.

No matter what Alito says to the contrary, eliminating the doctrine that has kept government in its lane won’t be limited to issues of reproductive choice. After all, at least four of the radical judges who voted to overrule Roe insisted during their confirmation hearings that it was “settled law.”

To the extent there is a controversy over the Constitutional right to privacy, it is between those who believe government has the right to make our most intimate decisions and those of us who disagree. Today’s Court is on the wrong side of that debate.

 

The Gorsuch Nomination

As I have previously written, the most damning argument against Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation has nothing to do with his bona fides, which are impressive. It is the inescapable fact that his elevation to the Supreme Court will be illegitimate–the result of a very dangerous and cynical misuse of political power.

The Republicans’ refusal to afford Merrick Garland a hearing has been widely criticised as blatantly partisan, so I nearly fell off the treadmill yesterday morning during my workout, as I watched an interview with Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham praised Judge Gorsuch and rattled off his qualifications; then he opined–with no hint of irony–that failure to confirm him would be “political” and thus unprincipled.

Unfortunately, those conducting the interview failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: if failure to approve Gorsuch would be “playing politics,” what the hell was failure to even consider Garland?

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

But what about Judge Gorsuch himself? His willingness–even eagerness–to fill a seat that will inevitably be seen as stolen is understandable; it’s the Supreme Court, after all. He is clearly highly intelligent; his academic background and professional experience are exemplary. His opinions–whether we agree with them or not–are clearly within the broad mainstream of the judiciary.

The two areas that trouble me are his professed version of originalism and his ambiguous  approach to substantive due process.

True “originalism” comes in a number of respectable versions, but over the past couple of decades, the term has become code for “conservative in the mold of Scalia.”  As Judge Posner (himself a conservative jurist) has persuasively noted, Antonin Scalia’s self-described originalism was incoherent and conveniently invoked. I don’t know any legal scholars who do not begin their analyses by looking to the Constitutional text and its historical meaning–and I don’t know any credible legal authority who would agree with a nice man I once debated, who insisted that “free speech” applied only to oral communications, not newspapers, books or other non-spoken transmittals of ideas. (“It says speech.”)

I often introduce the subject of original intent to my classes by asking “So, what did James Madison think about porn on the internet?” Usually, they laugh–and after we acknowledge that James Madison could never have envisioned the Internet, we consider how the Founders’ clear intent to protect the expression and exchange of ideas from government censorship should be applied to “facts on the ground” that those Founders could never have foreseen. In these situations, people of good will–all of whom believe they are honoring the principles the Founders intended to protect–can come to different conclusions about what fidelity to original intent requires.

I’d be very interested to know how Judge Gorsuch defines his originalism.

The Judge’s approach to substantive due process (sometimes called the Constitutional right to privacy) is unclear. Unlike our conversational use of the term, the constitutional right to privacy is shorthand for the individual’s right to self-determination, the doctrine that identifies fundamental individual rights that government cannot infringe without a compelling reason.

As the Court put it in one case, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Substantive due process requires government to respect the right of individuals to hold their own political and religious beliefs, define their own life’s meaning, choose their own life partners and control their own procreation. It defines certain areas of citizens’ lives as “off limits” to government. Our current privacy jurisprudence began when the Court struck down a Connecticut law prohibiting married couples from using contraception; the Court held that such intimate personal decisions were none of the government’s business.

Scalia was a ferocious critic of substantive due process; he had a crabbed, authoritarian view of individual liberty. (In Lawrence v. Texas, his acerbic dissent made clear his belief that government has the authority to outlaw fornication and masturbation.)

Would Judge Gorsuch agree? Will he follow Scalia, or respect existing legal precedents that protect our “intimate” behaviors and relationships from legislative assault?

Assuming Judge Gorsuch is confirmed to the “stolen seat” on the Court, his approach to originalism and substantive due process will be critically important. It would be nice to know his positions on those fundamental issues before the Senate votes.