Women And The Law

The final part of my “War on Women” argument is mercifully short.

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A Constitutional U-Turn

In addition to the First Amendment’s prohibition against legislating religious doctrine, for the past fifty years Americans have relied upon a constitutional doctrine known as substantive due process, often called the “right to privacy.” That doctrine has strengthened the conviction of most Americans that certain “intimate” individual decisions—including one’s choice of sexual partners or the decision to use contraception– are none of government’s business.

The right to privacy was explicitly recognized in a 1965 case titled Griswold v. Connecticut. The Court was considering the constitutionality of a Connecticut law prohibiting the use of birth control by married couples. (The law also prohibited doctors from prescribing or pharmacists from selling contraceptives.) William O. Douglas’s majority opinion reflected the logic of its conclusion. He wrote “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.”

The majority recognized that a right to personal autonomy was necessary to the enforcement of several of the amendments, which Douglas noted would be difficult or impossible to respect without the implicit recognition of such an underlying right. In a concurrence, Justice Goldberg found that same right in the Ninth Amendment, and Justices White and Harlan argued that privacy is protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—hence the doctrinal title “substantive due process.” Wherever it resided–in a “penumbra” or the 14th Amendment–a majority of the Justices agreed on its presence and importance.

Procedural due process protects Americans’ right to a fair process—a fair trial or other governmental proceeding. Substantive due process distinguishes between decisions that government has the legitimate authority to make, and decisions which must be left to each individual. In the fifty years since Griswold, the recognition that the U.S. Constitution protects personal autonomy and respects the right of each individual to self-determination has powerfully influenced American culture. Much of the anger over the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs can be traced to shock over Justice Alito’s assault on what most Americans had come to consider a bedrock principle:

Government has the right–indeed, the obligation–to intervene when a person’s behaviors are harming people who haven’t consented to that harm. (Mask mandates to protect public health are an example.) Otherwise, government must leave us alone. Secular and religiously tolerant Americans who had dismissed warnings about growing fundamentalist assaults on that principle, confident that their right to self-determination was secure, reacted to the conservative Christian overtones in Dobbs, justifying an invasion of that right, with predictable shock.

As the foregoing discussion has made clear, different religions—and different denominations within those religions– have very different beliefs about women and procreation, and what amounts to the Court’s elevation of a particular version of Christianity has engendered an enormous and negative reaction. Survey research has confirmed that a majority of Americans, including a majority of religiously-affiliated Americans, disagree with the Court’s decision, and are even more opposed to emerging efforts to make access to contraception difficult or impossible. Large numbers of Americans see the overturning of Roe and cases like Hobby Lobby[ as part of an escalating war on women.

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On November 8th, the American people need to send an unmistakable message to the arrogant theocrats and paternalists on the Court. A massive vote for Democrats–BLUE NO MATTER WHO–will send that message, in three parts: it will be a repudiation of the Court’s current trajectory; a signal that the Court’s legitimacy has dangerously eroded; and it will convey a willingness to make significant changes to the Court’s composition and jurisdiction.

A failure to send that message will be seen as acquiescence to the Court’s retrograde direction, with very negative consequences for all Americans, not just women.

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Same-Sex Marriage Is Next

So you don’t have a uterus, and you don’t care about the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade? Better hope you aren’t a member of the LGBTQ community, either–because gay folks are now in the line of fire, per Talking Points Memo.

After passing the House with the support of 47 Republicans, the Respect for Marriage Act, which would protect marriage rights for same-sex couples if the Supreme Court were to overturn its 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, faces much dimmer prospects in the Senate. There is one reason why: the Christian right still controls the Republican Party. Movement leaders know it took 50 years to reverse Roe, and are committed to a similar strategy to undermine and eventually overturn Obergefell. With abundant clues in the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe that LGBTQ rights could be next on the chopping block, it is unimaginable that movement leaders would sink that goal by allowing this bill to become law.

Republican senators are keenly aware of this. That is why South Dakota’s John Thune and Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy accused Democrats of introducing the bill to distract from inflation. It is why Florida’s Marco Rubio called it “a stupid waste of time,” and claimed gay Floridians are “pissed off” about something else — high gas prices. And it is why Maine’s Susan Collins, who was one of the bill’s four original Republican supporters, came up with the laughing-crying emoji argument that, because Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) had struck a surprise deal on Democratic legislative priorities late last month, she would struggle to win fellow Republicans’ support for the marriage bill. “[I]t was a very unfortunate move that destroys the many bipartisan efforts that are under way,” she told HuffPost.

The article went on to document the “avalanche of opposition” to the bill from the Christian Right that effectively controls today’s GOP.

The Family Research Council Action began calling the bill the “(Dis)Respect for Marriage Act” before it even reached the House floor, and pointed to the provision in the party’s   platform (back when the GOP still bothered with such things) that states, “[t]raditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values.”

FRC Action also ginned up fear among its members by alleging that the bill would be used to persecute them and take away their religious freedom. (I remind readers that–in Christian Nationalist language, “religious freedom” is defined as freedom to impose their fundamentalist  Christianity on everyone else.)

It reminded them that in the 1970s, the IRS revoked the tax exemption of the segregationist, fundamentalist Christian Bob Jones University over its racist policies, suggesting, despite the fact that it hasn’t happened in the seven years since Obergefell, that universities and nonprofits that oppose marriage equality could face a similar fate. The American Family Association called the bill “an Orwellian attempt to pretend that the Court’s very recent discovery of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage is not controversial and offensive to many people around the country.” The Heritage Foundation called it a “publicity stunt” aimed at “tak[ing] the spotlight off progressives’ radical policies and paint conservatives as bigots — and all this conveniently before the midterm elections.”

Ever since Justice Alito’s dishonest framing in Dobbs, I have warned that his attack on the doctrine of substantive due process–the doctrine that certain matters are none of government’s business–threatens numerous rights beyond abortion. If a woman no longer has the right to choose abortion, what about choosing to use birth control? What prevents government from decreeing that same-sex marriage erodes “the foundation for a free society?”

As Talking Points Memo concluded,

It’s crucial not only to understand what Christian nationalism is as an ideology, but to understand how right-wing operatives have attained the power to subvert democratic structures and democratic values in order to make it the core of anti-majoritarian rule. The opposition to the Respect for Marriage Act is an object lesson in how that power works. Christian right operatives and lawyers argue that America is a Christian nation, that Christians’ right to practice their religion must be protected from secular, progressive incursions like constitutional rights for LGBTQ people, and that it is the duty of judges and government officials to ensure that these “biblical” values are secured. With a sympathetic majority on the Supreme Court and a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate with filibuster rules favorable to conservatives, the Christian right has every incentive to deploy this power. And because Republicans no longer have an alternative base upon which to build a coalition, they will continue to relent.

Voting Blue has never been more important.

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Privacy And Diversity

America has always been more diverse than most countries. Initially, that diversity meant different kinds of Christians–Maryland, for example, was Catholic, while the other original colonies were dominated by a variety of Protestant denominations. We are far more diverse these days, thanks to immigration, the splintering of numerous sects, and the explosive growth of the “nones,” Americans without religious affiliations.

We aren’t only diverse in our religious beliefs. Individuals represent different races, different regional cultures and backgrounds and very different political and ideological commitments.

The big question is: what sort of government can serve such wildly different citizens and be  viewed as fair across all those differences? (That, of course, is a question that has long preoccupied political philosophers. John Rawls proposed a “Veil of Ignorance”–an intriguing mechanism for determining fairness.)

These days, as columnist Jennifer Rubin has written, an uncomfortable number of Americans are uninterested in fairness; they are interested in dominance. That faction is represented by a right-wing, activist Supreme Court and the Christian nationalists they favor. In their ahistorical vision of proper government,  “a sliver of the electorate (White, Christian, male) exploits anti-majoritarian aspects of our democracy (e.g. the filibuster, the electoral college, gerrymandering) to use the awesome power of the government to impose values rooted in the 19th century on a diverse country.”

In that vision, the proper beneficiaries of public policy are mostly White, Christian and male, and elements of modernity like science and expertise, not to mention diversity, are “foreign, elite and alien.”

Rubin uses a speech by retiring Justice Breyer to explain the countervailing, constitutionally-anchored viewpoint–one that, as she says, recognizes the heterodoxy of America.

“This is a complicated country. More than 330 million people. My mother used to say, it’s every race, it’s every religion — and she would emphasize this — it’s every point of view possible. It’s a kind of miracle when you sit there and see all those people in front of you. People that are so different in what they think. And yet they decided to help solve their major differences under law.”

This vision posits that to achieve “ordered liberty” for a diverse, noisy, rambunctious people, we must respect the right to self-determination — to choose one’s family, one’s lifestyle, one’s profession and one’s philosophy of child-rearing. That necessitates restriction on government so as to protect a sphere of private conscience. It’s what Louis Brandeis called the “right to be left alone.”

Poll after poll affirms that a large majority of Americans believe that the “right to be left alone”–the right to direct their own lives, consistent with their own moral commitments –should extend to such matters as contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, child rearing and lifestyle.

Until the advent of this rogue court, the Supreme Court had largely agreed. As Rubin reminds us, even before Griswold v. Connecticut was decided in 1965, the court had protected the right to send your child to the school of your choice and receive instruction in a foreign language. In the 1950s, the Court affirmed the right to choose your profession; and the right to travel (neither of which is expressly set forth in the Constitution).

The court in 1923 held that “liberty” includes the right “to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

After Griswold, that zone of privacy was extended to interracial marriage, private consensual sex, abortion, the right of grandparents to live with their grandchildren (i.e. how one defines a “single family”) and to same-sex marriage.

The zone of privacy erected by the Court is precisely what a fair reading of the Bill of Rights protects–the right of individuals to make personal decisions without government interference.  That is precisely what the MAGA movement cannot abide: it wants  government to “control how schools teach race, what teachers say about sexual and gender identity, how parents treat transgender children, and, now, whether women can be forced to give birth against their will.”

In response to the constitutional question “who decides?” the White Christian Nationalists of the MAGA movement respond: “we do.”

At stake right now is the individual’s right to live “free from the tyranny of the government and the mob.” As Rubin says, we need a counter-movement.

In sum, Americans need a counterweight to a Christian nationalist movement that seeks to impose on the majority the set of social beliefs of the minority. They need a movement to defend the myriad ways 330 million Americans engage in “pursuit of happiness” — ways as diverse as the country itself.

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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.

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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.

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