Posts Tagged ‘2nd Amendment’


More Privileges and Immunities Confusion

   Posted by: Robert    in Law

As one would not doubt expect from today, the media has been abuzz with thoughts and comments related to this afternoon’s oral argument in the case of McDonald v. Chicago. Most of the reporting has managed to crystallize around two salient facts: The Supreme Court will incorporate the Second Amendment, but the won’t do it through Privileges and Immunities.

With respect to the first fact, no piece of reporting I’ve yet to see has managed any more than a statement of agreement or disagreement with that the Court is poised to do. I’ll join this silly straw poll: Incorporating the Second Amendment would be an activist decision; Incorporation ignores the original understanding of the scope of the amendment, it ignores the unique anti-federal-involvement-in-state-gun-laws purpose which motivated the amendment, and it has no basis in the Constitution’s text.

More interesting is the bizarre confusion about what’s at stake when it comes to the use of the Privileges and Immunities Clause for bringing about that incorporation.

Under the Court’s current precedent, the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment provides every tool that McDonald could ever need to bring about incorporation of the 2nd Amendment. It also contains a great many other things. Most of what the Due Process Clause is said to contain has been rightly criticized by conservatives as being impossible to support under any reasonable reading of the text of the amendment. The Due Process Clause has become, in essence, an open-ended clause which allows the Court to pretty much do whatever it wants.

Perhaps recognizing that they would eventually need to reconcile their appropriate disdain for “substantive due process” with their misplaced desire to allow the Court to make activist decisions which favor conservative policy preferences, there has been a push to breathe new life into the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment. Leading with a smear campaign against the Slaughterhouse Cases and culminating with today’s argument in McDonald, conservatives have certainly put up a good fight.

Despite an effort to promote the Privileges and Immunities Clause as being somehow more restrained than “substantive due process,” it was apparent that the justices saw at least partly through the charade. A parenthetical on SCOTUSblog tells the tale:

(In fact, when Gura near the end of the argument returned to the podium for his rebuttal, his time was used up by Justices Ginsburg and Anthony M. Kennedy exploring what other rights might come into being if the Court gave new life to the “privileges or immunities” clause. He responded that he could not provide a full list, to which Justice Scalia retorted: “Doesn’ t that trouble you?” It was obvious that it troubled the Court.)

A more appropriate question might have been, “Why does the Constitution need two open ended clauses?” Or perhaps, “What does anyone gain by replacing one open ended clause with another?”

And if, as Roger Pilon states over on Bench Memos, “[most 14th Amendment cases] should have been decided under the more substantive Privileges or Immunities Clause,” might not one be forgiven for wondering what the point is in promoting this distinction without a difference? When the Court can turn Due Process (among other things) into “emanations from penumbras” into a “right to privacy” into a right to abortion on demand, it seems unlikely that any amount of “history,” no matter how much “better [it] informed the Court,” would have done anything to have “better checked the Court’s occasional activism.” After all, activism happens when a court ignores the overwhelming weight of text and history to arrive at a preferred decision.

I continue to be disappointed that conservatives have generally failed to remain true to the principles of judicial restraint when it comes to carrying guns. As I said at the time, the Court in Heller got to the right conclusion — individual right, no flat ban on handguns — but did so in a terribly activist way with an opinion I would not have joined. In this case, however, I continue to believe that incorporation is nowhere to be found in the Constitution and that, while a respect for precedent may council against disicorporating the Bill of Rights, there is no reason to extend its impropriety beyond where it has already gone.

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Privileges, Immunities, and Incorporation

   Posted by: Robert    in Law

I have recently been spending some time thinking about some of the arguments being made in the Chicago handgun case, McDonald v. City of Chicago, currently before the Supreme Court.  At issue in that case is whether it is constitutional for states and local governments to ban the possession of handguns, in light of last year’s ruling n DC v. Heller.  The case naturally hinges on the question of incorporation, a doctrine created and selectively applied by the Supreme Court to bind portions of the Bill of Rights against the states through the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.  Legal conservatives, like those bringing McDonald, have long complained that the Due Process Clause, properly understood, contains no such doctrine.  To supplement the shortfall, they have brought before the Supreme Court an argument that the 2nd Amendment is incorporated by the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment.  I do not think this is so.

The history of the Privileges and Immunities Clause in the 14th Amendment is best understood by reference to the Slaughterhouse Cases which gave the clause its first judicial interpretation.  The Slaughterhouse Cases involved a challenge to a state law in which Louisiana established a state-wide slaughterhouse corporation and prohibited the slaughter of animals in any facility not operated by that corporation.  The law was challenged broadly on 14th Amendment grounds, including the Privileges and Immunities Clause.

Critics contend that the Slaughterhouse Cases effectively “gutted” the Privileges and Immunities Clause and now hope to use that Clause as a vehicle for a new, “conservative” foundation for incorporation.  But would a flawed doctrine by any other line of constitutional authority not smell as sweet to the activists who seek to promote the rule of judges over the text of the Constitution?  Are the advocates in McDonald prepared to argue that years of complaining about the constitutional fallacy of “substantive due process” is really no more interesting than a semantic disagreement; that the judicial authority they have decried has been there the whole time, just under a different name?

A simple reading of the text and reference to the parallel P&I provision of the original Constitution reveals that the language of the Privileges and Immunities Clause cannot support incorporation.  In Slaughterhouse, the Supreme Court noted that “[The original P&I Clause’s] sole purpose was to declare to the several States, that whatever those rights, as you grant or establish them to your own citizens, or as you limit or qualify, or impose restrictions on their exercise, the same, neither more nor less, shall be the measure of the rights of citizens of other States within your jurisdiction.”  In other words, a state cannot discriminate against the citizens of another state.

The 14th Amendment takes the same language and adds only the slightest change.  Whereas the original P&I Clause referred to the “Citizens of the several States” (US Const. Article 4, Section 1), the new clause referred to the “citizens of the United States.” (US Const. Amdt. 14, Section 1)  This second clause comes immediately after a blanket grant of US citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and of state citizenship to “the state wherein they reside.”  Anyone residing in a state, or who otherwise has state citizenship, is covered by the original P&I Clause.  However, the 14th Amendment created a class of people (admittedly more hypothetical than real) who may be citizens of the United States, having been “born or naturalized” here, but do not “reside” in any state, and therefore hold no state citizenship.  The 14th Amendment P&I Clause extends coverage to those people as well.

Nowhere can I recall having heard an argument that the privileges and immunities granted by any state are automatically incorporated against the rest through the original Privileges and Immunities Clause.  Such an understanding of the P&I Clause would surely have seemed bizarre to the founders, and is strange to us today.  The minor linguistic changes between the original and the 14th Amendment P&I clauses are certainly not significant enough to invite the creation of an incorporation doctrine.

As the Supreme Court considered in the Slaughterhouse Cases (with emphasis added):

Was it the purpose of the fourteenth amendment, by the simple declaration that no State should make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, to transfer the security and protection of all the civil rights which we have mentioned, from the States to the Federal government? And where it is declared that Congress shall have the power to enforce that article, was it intended to bring within the power of Congress the entire domain of civil rights heretofore belonging exclusively to the States?

All this and more must follow, if the proposition of the 78 plaintiffs in error be sound. For not only are these rights subject to the control of Congress whenever in its discretion any of them are supposed to be abridged by State legislation, but that body may also pass laws in advance, limiting and restricting the exercise of legislative power by the States, in their most ordinary and usual functions, as in its judgment it may think proper on all such subjects. And still further, such a construction followed by the reversal of the judgments of the Supreme Court of Louisiana in these cases, would constitute this court a perpetual censor upon all legislation of the States, on the civil rights of their own citizens, with authority to nullify such as it did not approve as consistent with those rights, as they existed at the time of the adoption of this amendment. The argument we admit is not always the most conclusive which is drawn from the consequences urged against the adoption of a particular construction of an instrument. But when, as in the case before us, these consequences are so serious, so far-reaching and pervading, so great a departure from the structure and spirit of our institutions; when the effect is to fetter and degrade the State governments by subjecting them to the control of Congress, in the exercise of powers heretofore universally conceded to them of the most ordinary and fundamental character; when in fact it radically changes the whole theory of the relations of the State and Federal governments to each other and of both these governments to the people; the argument has a force that is irresistible, in the absence of language which expresses such a purpose too clearly to admit of doubt.

We are convinced that no such results were intended by the Congress which proposed these amendments, nor by the legislatures of the States which ratified them.

I am equally convinced, and believe that the P&I argument in McDonald must fail.

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Guns in Tennessee

   Posted by: Robert    in Law

It seems judicial activism is alive and well in Tennessee.  Though information is scarce, it appears that a judge has ruled unconstitutional a law recently enacted by the state which allowed guns to be legally carried in restaurants that serve alcohol.  The opinion was apparently issued from the bench and I haven’t yet been able to hunt down a written opinion or transcript, but if a news report is to be believed, the judge’s decision is a mess of illogic and policy driven judicial craftsmanship.

As I understand the background of the case, it arises out of the new Tennessee law which allows guns to be carried in restaurants which sell alcohol, but not in bars.  The law works by repealing most of an earlier provision that prohibited guns in any alcohol-serving establishment.  A group of permit holders challenged the law in court, seeking a declaration that the law is unconstitutionally vague.  The law is vague, they claim, because it fails to clearly distinguish between restaurants (where guns are allowed) and bars (where they are not).  The judge agreed and struck down the law, which, by my understanding, reverts everything to the pre-law conditions where guns are prohibited wherever alcohol is sold.

Examining the results of the case closely, it becomes apparent that the court’s decision, however the opinion was written, was an exercise of judicial policymaking.  In order to even be heard in court, the challengers would have needed to show that they were harmed by the vagueness of the law (or, if this is a declaratory judgment, that they are likely to be harmed by it).  The only way someone is harmed by vagueness in the law is if they violate the law unknowingly.  The only possible way to violate the law unknowingly is to carry a gun into a bar that they thought was a restaurant.

The court’s decision purports to solve this problem by (effectively) making it illegal to carry guns in restaurants.  But this is not a solution at all.  Under the court’s decision, it is still illegal to carry a gun into a bar that you think is a restaurant.  Nothing changes except that a great number of legal carries now become illegal carries, causing harm to the rights of restaurateurs and patrons who had no problem having guns at the table.

Assuming that the law truly is vague on this point, the court had two valid options available.

The first option is a variation on the option chosen by the court: Eliminate the distinction between restaurants and bars.  However, the distinction would need to be eliminated in favor of gun carriers, because that is the only way to remove the hazard of being caught with a gun in a bar that you thought was a restaurant.  This option eliminates the vagueness entirely, and solves the problem at hand.  The downside, however, is that it rewrites the law to produce a result, guns in bars, which was expressly rejected by the political process.  Though not the atrocity of the actual opinion, this choice would still have been activist.

The second option is effectively to punt: Dismiss the case and leave the law, as it is, intact.  Over time, courts will be called on to decide whether or not particular establishments are restaurants or bars, building a body of common law precedent in the absence of legislative definition.  This sort of case by case decision making is certainly not as clean as a proper definition from the legislature, but it is a common procedure undertaken by the courts which ultimately yields a workable standard.  Further, while true that some people will end up on the wrong side of uncertainty, the Rule of Lenity will generally protect these people from harm.

It is that final option which the court should have selected.  Instead, the court chose to deviate from the duly enacted will of the people in pursuit of an outcome which does not resolve any harm the law may have caused.  Such a decision is hard to reconcile with anything other than an apparent policy preference from a judge now translated into law.

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Gun Rights and the States

   Posted by: Robert    in Law

More a post of first impression than anything else, but I again find myself irritated at the NRA and the rather bizarre copy of the Constitution that they appear to possess.  As SCOTUSblog reports here and here, the NRA has filed an appeal in the Supreme Court asking the justices to apply the Second Amendment against the states, through a method known as incorporation.  While the affront to federalism brought by incorporation is disturbing in any case, it is particularly so in the Second Amendment context, given that amendment’s deep ties to federalist concerns.  But what occurs to me is that there may be another way for the NRA to get what it wants without needing to cast any pretense of concern for state sovereignty to the winds to get there.

The key is a practice I’ve seen used by state courts that usually comes up in the equal protection context where state constitutional provisions are held to be identical in scope to their federal constitutional counterparts.  In the case of equal protection, I have generally heard state courts say, in essence, that their state equal protection guarantees extend no further than federal equal protection guarantees.  Of course, equal protection guarantees cannot be less.

While state courts certainly are not bound to maintain equivalence, there is a compelling logic to keeping a consistent meaning for the same set of words when those words appear in both federal and state law.  At a minimum, it promotes a consistency of law which is well within the role of the courts to foster.  More importantly, when state constitutions adopt pre-existing provisions of federal law or the federal Constitution, it tends to be because they want to adopt the meaning of the federal provision, which is precisely what the Supreme Court had declared.

Of course, differently worded state constitutions and state courts which choose to disagree with the Supreme Court as far as their own state constitutions go remain a risk to the NRA position under my approach.  Nevertheless, it is far less judicially activist and destructive to federalism than the path currently being charted by the NRA, and it would certainly not preclude them from returning to the Supreme Court with their activism later if the more modest approach doesn’t pan out.

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DC Closer to Congress

   Posted by: Robert    in Law

In what is bound to be but one of many examples of the current government showing its lack of concern for the Constitution, I see that the Senate has voted to approve the DC Voting Rights Act of 2009.  Although a more flagrant violation of the Consitution is hard to imagine, the most surprising aspects of this bill actually have very little to do with its primary intent.

In what is quite possibly an attempt to trick Republicans other than the misguided Senator Hatch (R-Utah) into voting for this bill, it apparently also spends some time establishing new media policies, the most noteworthy of which is that it declares the Fairness Doctrine to be prohibited.  Exactly what this has to do with giving DC a voting member in the House, I have no idea.  Equally elusive to me is the reason why anyone should care in the first place whether or not Congress has passed a law to forbid this Doctrine.  Any legislative prohibition in the hands of the current Congress is just so many words.  The law does not currently mandate a Fairness Doctrine, the FCC (citing constitutional concerns) does not enforce one, and any prohibition passed by Congress can always be repealed or inverted later.  One need only look at the blighted history of “pay-go” to realize that a congressional promise to not do something is not worth the paper it takes to print the promise.

But the fun doesn’t stop there.  Using what is probably also an attempt to buy Republican votes, the Act also includes a bunch of pro-gun provisions which, at least at a cursory glance, seem to pretty much get rid of the DC gun laws which have the NRA types all upset.  This part of the Act has the distinction of being the only part which appears both relevant and constitutional.  This part is also what Congress should have done instead of filing an amicus brief in Heller.  Most interestingly, however, is that this part of the Act brings with it a deep irony for those who truly believe that DC deserves to have a vote in the House: The very law which would give DC a vote would directly overrule DC law without letting DC vote on the issue.

At the end of the day, the obligation that members of Congress have to vote against this piece of legislation is clear.  There are too many reasons, both practical and constitutional, why this Act is not deserving of any of the 61 votes it has already received.  Republican legislators need to not be swindled by the carrots being hung in front of their noses, for beyond that tasty snack is a cliff as deep as history.  The Republican consituency will surely be told that their lawmakers voted against prohibiting the Fairness Doctrine and against gun rights in DC; paying attention to those charges would be the gravest of errors.  May the Republicans stand strong.