Due Process Clause - Commentary - Substantive Due Process

Substantive Due Process

Critics of substantive due process often claim that the doctrine began, at the federal level, with the infamous 1857 slavery case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. However, other critics contend that substantive due process was not used by the federal judiciary until after the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1869. Advocates of substantive due process who assert that the doctrine was employed in Dred Scott claim that it was employed incorrectly. Additionally, the first appearance of substantive due process as a concept arguably appeared earlier in the case of Bloomer v. McQuewan, 55 U.S. 539 (1852), so that Chief Justice Taney would not have been entirely breaking ground in his Dred Scott opinion when he pronounced the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional because, among other reasons, an "act of Congress that deprived a citizen of his liberty or property merely because he came himself or brought his property into a particular territory of the United States, and who had committed no offence against the laws, could hardly be dignified with the name of due process of law." Dissenting Justice Curtis disagreed with Taney about what "due process" meant in Dred Scott.

Criticisms of the doctrine continue as in the past. Critics argue that judges are making determinations of policy and morality that properly belong with legislators (i.e. "legislating from the bench"), or argue that judges are reading views into the Constitution that are not really implied by the document, or argue that judges are claiming power to expand the liberty of some people at the expense of other people's liberty (e.g. as in the Dred Scott case), or argue that judges are addressing substance instead of process.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a realist, worried that the Court was overstepping its boundaries, and the following is from one of his last dissents:

I have not yet adequately expressed the more than anxiety that I feel at the ever increasing scope given to the Fourteenth Amendment in cutting down what I believe to be the constitutional rights of the States. As the decisions now stand, I see hardly any limit but the sky to the invalidating of those rights if they happen to strike a majority of this Court as for any reason undesirable. I cannot believe that the Amendment was intended to give us carte blanche to embody our economic or moral beliefs in its prohibitions. Yet I can think of no narrower reason that seems to me to justify the present and the earlier decisions to which I have referred. Of course the words due process of law, if taken in their literal meaning, have no application to this case; and while it is too late to deny that they have been given a much more extended and artificial signification, still we ought to remember the great caution shown by the Constitution in limiting the power of the States, and should be slow to construe the clause in the Fourteenth Amendment as committing to the Court, with no guide but the Court's own discretion, the validity of whatever laws the States may pass.

Originalists, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who rejects substantive due process doctrine, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who has also questioned the legitimacy of the doctrine, call substantive due process a "judicial usurpation" or an "oxymoron." Both Scalia and Thomas have occasionally joined Court opinions that mention the doctrine, and have in their dissents often argued over how substantive due process should be employed based on Court precedent.

Many non-originalists, like Justice Byron White, have also been critical of substantive due process. As propounded in his dissents in Moore v. East Cleveland and Roe v. Wade, as well as his majority opinion in Bowers v. Hardwick, White argued that the doctrine of substantive due process gives the judiciary too much power over the governance of the nation and takes away such power from the elected branches of government. He argued that the fact that the Court has created new substantive rights in the past should not lead it to "repeat the process at will." In his book Democracy and Distrust, non-originalist John Hart Ely criticized "substantive due process" as a glaring non-sequitur. Ely argued the phrase was a contradiction-in-terms, like the phrase green pastel redness.

Originalism is usually linked to opposition against substantive due process rights, and the reasons for that can be found in the following explanation that was endorsed unanimously by the Supreme Court in a 1985 case: "e must always bear in mind that the substantive content of the Clause is suggested neither by its language nor by preconstitutional history; that content is nothing more than the accumulated product of judicial interpretation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments."

Originalists do not necessarily oppose protection of the rights heretofore protected using substantive due process, and instead most originalists believe that such rights should be identified and protected legislatively, or via further constitutional amendments, or via other existing provisions of the Constitution.

The perceived scope of the Due Process Clause was originally different than it is today. For instance, even though many of the Framers of the Bill of Rights believed that slavery violated the fundamental natural rights of African-Americans, a "theory that declared slavery to be a violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.... requires nothing more than a suspension of reason concerning the origin, intent, and past interpretation of the clause."

Read more about this topic:  Due Process Clause, Commentary

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