McDonald and the Future of the Privileges or Immunities Clause

by David H. Gans, Director of the Human Rights, Civil Rights & Citizenship Program, Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC) This article is cross-posted at ACSBlog.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in McDonald v. City of Chicago, which raises the question whether the Second Amendment’s guarantee of a right to bear arms applies to states and local governments. Going into argument, incorporation of the Second Amendment right seemed a given – after all, states already have to obey virtually every right in the Bill of Rights. The critical question was whether the Court would breathe new life into the Privileges or Immunities Clause, and honor the part of the Fourteenth Amendment’s text that clearly protects substantive fundamental rights from state infringement.

The Privileges or Immunities Clause was intended to be the centerpiece of the Fourteenth Amendment, but it was written out of the Constitution by the Supreme Court in the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases. The decision has been regarded as one of the worst in the Court’s history, and roundly condemned by the Amendment’s framers in the 1870s, Justice Harlan in the early 20th century, and Justice Black in the 1940s. The overwhelming consensus among scholars across the ideological spectrum – reflected in a law professors’ brief filed by CAC in McDonald – is that Slaughter-House obliterated the text and history of the Clause through a profoundly incorrect interpretation of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the Privileges or Immunities Clause received a chilly reception from the Court on Tuesday, especially from those Justices who most profess to take the Constitution’s text and history seriously. Justice Scalia belittled the Clause, accusing Alan Gura, McDonald’s attorney, of “bucking for some place on some law school faculty” by advancing an argument that was “the darling of the professoriate.” Scalia, supposedly the Court’s chief originalist, wouldn’t even consider the merits of the argument. Chief Justice Roberts, too, refused to follow the Constitution’s text and history where it leads. He explicitly worried that the Privileges or Immunities Clause would allow for broad protections of substantive liberty; he preferred to rely on the Due Process Clause, since that text is about process, and does not easily lend itself to protecting substantive fundamental rights. While Roberts and Scalia were content to rely on substantive due process to protect gun rights, they seemed to want to reserve the opportunity to bash the doctrine in future cases involving rights they don’t recognize. Other Justices were less overtly hostile, but none seemed willing to revive the Clause.

In light of its reception at the Court, was Gura too bold?

Of course, we don’t know what the Court’s opinion will ultimately say; it is quite possible that much of the privileges-or-immunities history Gura cited will form the basis for the Court’s opinion, which would make the case a great victory for all who care about the Constitution’s text and history even if the Court relies on the Due Process Clause. But even if the Court ignores text and history, pushing to revive the Privileges or Immunities Clause was the right decision.

First, if not now, when? The Second Amendment is the only substantive provision of the Bill of Rights not already incorporated against state action. There may never be a better chance to argue that the Clause protects substantive fundamental rights against state infringement.

Second, McDonald has been a teaching moment: thanks to terrific coverage in editorials and stories in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other papers, millions of people now know that protection of substantive fundamental rights was written into the clear text of the Constitution. Thanks to this coverage, debates about whether the Constitution protects fundamental rights will not be the same. Whatever the Court says in its opinion, Americans should remember that the Privileges or Immunities Clause was written to ensure all Americans enjoy broad protections of substantive liberty, including fundamental rights not enumerated in the Constitution. And the Justices certainly are now aware of the overwhelming scholarly consensus that the Clause has been long-mistreated by the Court.

Finally, Justices have pushed to revive the Privileges or Immunities Clause for over a century, and there is no reason to think McDonald will be the last word. It is possible that, in future cases, the Court’s liberal Justices may find that the Clause’s text and history is a powerful weapon. When the Court next considers the right to reproductive choice recognized in Roe or the right of sexual intimacy recognized in Lawrence, the text and history of the Privileges or Immunities Clause may be a powerful rejoinder to the arguments by Justice Scalia and others that protecting substantive fundamental rights through the Due Process Clause is “judicial usurpation.” The Clause’s text and history, which show that that the framers were concerned about ensuring that the newly freed slaves had rights as citizens to marry, decide whether to bear children, and control their family life, gives the Court’s liberal Justices powerful ammunition to root protection of rights of heart and home directly in the Constitution’s text and history.


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