Tag Archives: substantive due process

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.

 

About That Ciivil War..

Jennifer Rubin’s column on the leak of Alito’s “slash and burn” opinion pretty much summed up where we are: she pointed out that

unelected justices — in some cases appointed by presidents who lacked a popular-vote majority and confirmed by senators who did not represent a majority of the country — would bring to head a battle between a fading racial, religious and political minority and an increasingly diverse, secular country.

Rubin is not the only pundit pointing to the implications of the leaked analysis: this isn’t simply an attack on Roe, or on the right to abortion. This is the culmination of a 50-year effort to reverse the jurisprudence of substantive due process.

As I used to explain to my students, in American law, there are two kinds of due process: procedural and substantive. Procedural due process is–as the name implies–concerned with the fundamental fairness of the legal process. Did an accused person get a fair trial? If the matter was civil, rather than criminal, was the government procedure properly respectful of the individual’s liberty interests and property rights?

Substantive due process, as the name implies, is concern for the substance of a proposed law or government action. Is this an area where government regulation or action is appropriate, or is this a matter that must be left up to the individual to determine?

In other words, in this particular instance, who gets to decide? Government or the individual involved?  The question is not: what should the decision be? The question is: who gets to make the decision?

Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that the legislature had no business deciding whether married couples could use birth control, the doctrine of substantive due process has been applied to limit state intrusion into what the Court has called “intimate decisions.” Those “intimate decisions” include whether and when to have children, who to marry, whether to have consensual sexual relations, and many other choices that contemporary citizens believe are simply none of government’s business.

Alito’s sneering draft sweeps away that distinction. He hands over to state legislatures the authority to invade the most personal and private areas of individual lives, and to decree how those “intimate” lives should be led.

Make no mistake: eviscerating the doctrine of substantive due process, which is what this decision would begin to do, would return the U.S. to a pre-modern version of state authority–to a time when government had the right to impose the religious beliefs of those in power on citizens who do not share those beliefs.

If the leaked draft represents the Court’s ultimate, official decision, it will generate a civil war between the minority of Americans who want to turn back the clock to a time when church and state were joined in authority over citizens’ most personal decisions, and the rest of us.

Why do I characterize what’s coming as “civil war”?

Over the past 50 years, Americans (and for that matter, citizens of other Western democracies) have become accustomed to a legal system that draws a line between permissible and impermissible government actions. We have become accustomed to a culture in which we are entitled to a degree of personal autonomy, to control of the most meaningful, personal aspects of our own lives. In the U.S., polling repeatedly shows that large majorities believe that a woman should be able to control her own body and make her own reproductive decisions, that people of the same sex or different races should have the right to marry, that decisions to use or forgo contraception is none of government’s business.

A minority of paternalistic religious critics have worked  tirelessly to turn back the clock– to return to a time when these decisions were made by the White Christian Males in charge, those Rubin properly characterized as a “fading racial, religious and political minority.” Alito’s draft represents a massive victory for that minority. If it is seen accurately for what it promises–a steady stream of decisions depriving citizens of hard-won rights to live their “intimate” lives as they see fit– I believe furious Americans will launch a civil revolution of massive proportions.

It will be war.