A recent opinion column by Ruth Marcus is really a “must read” by anyone who thinks that the absence of a specific provision in America’s constitution is evidence that the document is “neutral” about an issue.
Marcus’ essay focuses on reproductive rights, but her explanation of the Constitution’s operation extends well beyond abortion. Although she doesn’t put it this way, what she is really exposing is the fact that judges who call themselves “originalists” are actually revisionists who use the absence of a particular word in the text to justify a preferred, distinctly unoriginal interpretation of the Bill of Rights.
The argument–which was on display during oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson-– is that, absent express constitutional language, an issue must be left to “the people.” As Marcus points out,
The fundamental flaw here is that the Constitution exists in no small part to protect the rights of the individual against the tyranny of the majority. The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment exist to put some issues off limits for majority rule — as Justice Robert H. Jackson put it in a 1943 ruling protecting the right of Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren not to be forced to salute the flag, “to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities.” The Supreme Court, in protecting abortion rights, isn’t telling women what to do: It is preserving space for them to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies.
She also notes the highly selective application of the “leave it to the people” approach.
They’re happy to second-guess the decisions of elected officials and public health experts about how best to safeguard their communities in the midst of a pandemic when religious institutions claim their rights are being violated. They don’t flinch at saying that the core First Amendment protection for political speech places strict limits on Congress’s ability to limit corporate spending on elections or enact other campaign finance rules.
What this disingenuous argument rejects is the whole purpose of the Bill of Rights (the Founders’ actual “original intent”)–which was to keep government from invading the fundamental rights of the people to personal autonomy–the right to self-government. A reading of the history of the too-frequently overlooked Ninth and Tenth Amendments makes clear that “unenumerated” rights were among those to be protected.
When people argue that the right to privacy is not protected from government overreach because the word “privacy” doesn’t appear in the document, they conveniently ignore the reality that without recognizing a zone of privacy, it is impossible to give effect to very explicit provisions of the First, Third, Fourth and Ninth Amendments (not to mention the 14th, which was ratified after the Civil War.)
When the Supreme Court decided, in Bowers v. Hardwick, that the Constitution didn’t protect a right to homosexual behavior, because such behavior was not addressed in the document, legal scholars–and a later Court–addressed the fundamental error in that analysis: It had inverted the question. Where in the Constitution or Bill of Rights is government given authority to tell people who and how they can love?
The question is always: who gets to decide this matter, government or the individuals involved? The Bill of Rights answers that question by enumerating things government is forbidden to do. It cannot censor our speech, decide our religions, search our homes or persons without probable cause, or take a variety of other actions that invade an individual’s right to self-determination (the Constitutional definition of privacy).
As Marcus reminds readers,
There are any number of rights that the court has long found fall within the bounds of constitutional protection even though they are not specifically mentioned in the text. The right to travel. The right of parents to educate their children as they choose. The right to contraception. The right to private sexual conduct. The right to marry a person of another race. The right to marry a person of the same gender.
All these derive from the intentionally broad phrases of the 14th Amendment’s protections against the deprivation of “liberty” without due process of law. “The full scope of the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause cannot be found in or limited by the precise terms of the specific guarantees elsewhere provided in the Constitution,” Justice John Harlan, no liberal, explained in a 1961 dissent, from an early case involving access to contraception.
If a woman’s right to control of her own body doesn’t have constitutional protection, then logically, none of the rights Marcus enumerates are protected either–and the intellectually dishonest “religious” conservatives on the Court are quite capable of coming for those rights in the future.