Friday, April 6, 2012

The Constitution and 'invented rights'

After this week's Scripps column in which I pooh-poohed "judicial activism," I received several responses from conservative readers suggesting it's actually very easy to spot.
Read the constitution and uphold it. Don't manufacture "rights" not mentioned in the constitution. What does the constitution say? Don't impose your opinion, or your own political philosphy. Judicial activism is manufacturing "rights" not enumerated in the constitution.
This, I think, is a fairly common conservative view. It is also--according to the Constitution itself!--dead wrong.

Here is the text of the Ninth Amendment:
"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."
The Founders were worried that by creating a Bill of Rights, they would legally imply that people didn't have other rights not named in the Constitution. This is how they covered their rights-loving butts. And yet people constantly commit the very error the Founders were trying to avoid. This is very odd for a movement supposedly so devoted to preserving the Founders' wishes and vision.

I'm not sure if this was the Founders' intent--and I don't actually think that matters--but what that amendment effectively means is that we have to continue to always be in conversation about what those rights are and what they mean. Some folks would suggest that Ninth Amendment rights are frozen at what the Founders would've understood to be rights--which is why Clarence Thomas does in-depth investigations into parenting practices of the 1780s and Antonin Scalia effectively disputes the idea that women are citizens. The rest of us understand that this is silly at best and pernicious at worst.

As those examples indicate, this kind of thinking replaces the "rule of law" with a kind of "tyrannical legalism" that dispenses entirely with common sense. Conservatives like to suggest that's a liberal problem, but I don't think it's limited to the left. One example: The authors of anti-torture laws explicitly didn't ban specific techniques because they didn't want to give the impression that other coercive, pain-inflicting methods were OK. They couldn't make an exhaustive list, so they didn't make a list at all, instead crafting laws to describe the effects of torture. The result is that we have Bush Administration conservatives tell us that waterboarding isn't actually torture.

What does all of this mean? Well, it probably means that rights evolve. And that our commitment to protecting them evolves as well. It's not something that should happen willy-nilly, and it doesn't: It's a combination of society, Congress, and (yes) the courts moving in a commonly accepted direction, and that process usually takes time. The results can sometimes be messy and controversial--not everybody is on board with the right to abortion, for example--but I'll take that messiness over the clean precision of Scalia's vision that denies women the benefits of citizenship. It doesn't mean that some rights are "invented," at least not in the sense that the rights are thus artificial. It just means that they weren't named in the Constitution. That's not as big a deal as some people think.

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