The Dangers of Excess “Conservatism”
For all the good that might become of a Supreme Court that leans more to the Right, there are also many inherent dangers that accompany too much “conservatism.” A few months ago I had said to my husband- only half-jokingly- that I often wondered if our grandparents didn’t all pass away just so they wouldn’t have to live to see what America has become. For all the good that less governmental intervention in the economy might do, many forget all that history has to teach about the often extreme abuses against the common and ordinary citizen that naturally accompany unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism. According to Peter Irons in his 2006 book A People’s History of the Supreme Court: The Men and Women Whose Cases and Decisions Have Shaped Our Constitution, during the last two decades of the 19th century (speaking of the expansions of the railroads), “…railroads had their caste system and brakemen took home only $212 that year for the most dangerous job on the trains. More than two thousand railroad workers died in accidents each year, and thirty thousand suffered injuries.” (p.245)
According to Bernard Schwartz,
To return to the Peckham conception of law is to return to a time when ‘it was unconstitutional to intrude upon the inalienable right of employees to make contracts containing terms unfavorable to themselves, in bargains with their employers.’ In those days, ‘[a]n ordinary worker was told, if he sought to avoid harsh contracts made with his employer…that he had acted with his eyes open, had only himself to blame, must stand on his own feet, must take the consequences of his own folly.’ And if, as in Lochner, a law sought to equalize the situation, it was ruled an invalid interference with freedom of contract. To return to Lochner is to return to the abuses that inevitably accompany unrestricted laissez faire.”[xii]
After all, there is a reason why many of our grandparents were Democrats. “Democrats are for the blue-collar worker” is what we often have heard, and history bears this out to a large extent. In the days of laissez-faire, the common, average, and impoverished citizen was often told:
Rights of property which have been created by the common law cannot be taken away without due process; but the law itself, as a rule of conduct, may be changed at the will, or even at the whim, of the legislature, unless prevented by constitutional limitations. We know that this is a power which may be abused, but that is no argument against its existence. For protection against abuses by legislatures, the people must resort to the polls, not to the courts.[xiii]
By and large the Republicans often favor the rich/elite and the big corporations, often stating today something similar to the above quoted passage as regards the democratic process. But to quote Schwartz once again: “A supreme tribunal that molds its law only to fit immediate demands of public sentiment is hardly fulfilling its proper role. As Justice Frankfurter once put it, ‘The Court has no reason for existence if it merely reflects the pressures of the day.’”[xiv] What is needed, in reality, is to maintain moderation as danger lurks whenever courts and legislatures swing too extreme either to the Left or the Right. Mostly “moderates” in the center on the Supreme Court were responsible for most of the legal revolution of the mid-20th century, ruling according to the “felt necessities of the time.”[xv] Perhaps today the “felt necessities” could be that the “welfare state” has simply gone too far.
But as everyone hopes that the highest tribunal shifts to the Right so that Roe might be “overturned,” there are many more consequences of such a shift that many never give any heed nor regard to, but which will become even more apparent as time goes on. Part of this disregard simply stems from an ignorance of the history of American legal and Constitutional jurisprudence. Or perhaps Americans truly believe by and large that some rights and freedoms now enjoyed by the criminal defendant, the indigent, and the political dissenter have simply always existed as they do now. Sadly, this is not the case. Many rights and freedoms Americans enjoy today actually come from the “liberal” excesses of the mid-20th century- excesses “conservatives” on the Supreme Court and elsewhere have consistently been trying to chip away at for the past few decades.
The right to jury trial of one’s peers at the state level in cases where the possibility of incarceration exists, the right to be read one’s rights at the time of arrest/detainment in the custody of police,[xvi] the right of an indigent criminal defendant to a lawyer,[xvii] the right to petition for habeas corpus,[xviii] the right to a lawyer upon appeal, the prohibition of police use of the “silver platter doctrine,”[xix] the prohibition of the use of illegally obtained evidence by Federal or state officers in criminal trials,[xx] the right to burn an American flag in political protest,[xxi] the right of one’s children to refuse to salute the flag and against compelled prayer in public schools,[xxii] etc…
Only due to the “liberal” and “moderate” forces upon the Supreme Court in the 20th century do these rights even exist at all. The president’s War Powers have also been largely kept in check on account of “liberal” and “moderate” forces on the Supreme Court. It can’t be taken for granted that Republicans such as those of the current administration have little respect for the rights of the accused or suspected enemy combatants to habeas corpus. The “conservative” forces must balance out the liberal forces, of necessity, in order to protect the welfare of the public, but “conservative” excesses have a long and dated history of giving carte blanche to the president, legislatures and other executive officials- especially since 9/11.[xxiii] This isn’t a set “rule,” of course, but there is enough of a history to make anyone mindful of the law and criminal justice system wary of the consequences of too much “conservatism.”
The Common Law and the Constitution
Perhaps I would like to bring the abortion issue back into the equation for the moment. There doesn’t seem to be much common sense floating around where this issue is concerned, just back and forth ranting. I’m not here to rant about these issues, but only to reason rationally and deeply- and realistically- about them. My main fear where this issue is concerned is that it simply reeks of “police state” with a side order of religious tyranny.
It isn’t really enough to look through history or the common law of England where this issue is concerned, though it could shed light on history and the nation’s founding, as the common law was adapted over time to the unique scenarios and circumstances of the American way of life.
The first issue is how prosecutions would proceed. There have already been instances in recent years of individuals (of both sexes- not just women) being charged for giving abortifacients for the purpose of illegally inducing abortion. Obviously if a woman enters the emergency room with complications from an illegal abortion, the law does allow (in some instances it requires) that the crime be reported to police. But if a woman chooses not to receive emergency care after an illegally-induced abortion (or simply does not need care if she has no adverse side effects), how then would charges be brought and whom would they be brought against? Being “pro-life” might sound good on paper- much the same as “drug-free”- but reality must be given greater weight than sentiment where issues of law are concerned.
The nature of abortion has changed since misoprostol began being used to induce abortions non-surgically in the 1980s. The drug is widely available in some Latin American countries where abortion has been outlawed (usually due to the influence of the Catholic Church) without a prescription, but in recent years it has shown signs of becoming a major “black-market” drug in the United States. Obviously, the dealers of such drugs could be caught in the normal legal manner, but danger of governmental tyranny and Unconstitutional search and seizure lurks in the murky waters where the woman who takes the drugs is concerned.
This question must be proposed, now that I have also in-depth asked the questions above of how a more “conservative” majority in our Federal courts and in the Supreme Court would deal with the rights of criminal defendants. Justice Harry Blackmun (who wrote the opinion of the Court in Roe v Wade), in sharp contrast to today’s justices who generally have their law clerks do most of the research and write up rough drafts of opinions for them, spent months doing research and writing up drafts (whom Justices Douglas and Brennan consistently gave him feedback on) in the Roe case[xxiv]. In the final Roe opinion, he went over historical abortion laws in good depth and concluded that most of the early anti-abortion laws in early American history (which laid the full legal penalty upon the one providing the abortion, not the pregnant woman) were generally thought to be designed to protect the woman from submitting herself to a procedure that in many cases would threaten her life.[xxv]
When most criminal abortion laws were first enacted, the procedure was a hazardous one for the woman. This was particularly true prior to the development of antisepsis…Abortion mortality was high. Even after 1900, and perhaps until as late as the development of antibiotics in the 1940s, standard modern techniques such as dilation and curettage were not nearly so safe as they are today. Thus, it has been argued that a State’s real concern in enacting a criminal abortion law was to protect the pregnant woman, that is, to restrain her from submitting to a procedure that placed her life in serious jeopardy.[xxvi]
One of the major grievances the American colonists originally had against the Crown before the Declaration of Independence was the general writs of assistance that were used to arbitrarily carry out searches of a person’s home, person and belongings. These were equivalent to general and vague search warrants, allowing agents of the Crown to basically rummage through all of a subject’s possessions, without having to specify exactly what was being searched for. The question must be proposed: Could a search warrant be executed against a woman who is suspected of being pregnant if an officer has probable cause to believe that she might be pregnant and might be doing something that might put the life or health of the fetus in danger? Might she then be physically restrained and subjected to an intrusive search of her body to see if she is pregnant and then her body be searched for evidence of the crime of endangering the life of the unborn in some way? Or evidence of pregnancy or attempted/completed abortion in a woman suspected of being pregnant even where medical help or attention has not been sought and consented to? Might she, or even the father of the child or others close to her, be arrested and interrogated or subpoenaed as witnesses in a court of law against the woman or anyone else charged as being connected with the “crime?”
If a fetus is legally considered to be a “person” under the Fourteenth Amendment, then this is not a ridiculous question, but a realistic one. From Alabama’s “fetus lawyers” to Texas’ TRAP laws (which the Supreme Court struck down in its 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision[xxvii]) mandating the proper burial of fetal remains, it is hardly unreasonable that the States, if allowed, would resort to nearly any arbitrary measures in order to bypass the civil rights of their residents and oppress them. An officer of the law need only have a “reasonable suspicion” to believe that criminal activity might be afoot or that an individual is about to commit, is in the process of committing, or has just committed, a crime in order to stop and question an individual or give a quick pat-down or search of their outer garments.[xxviii] If probable cause exists, the officer may then make a lawful arrest. Could this discretionary power of officers of the law be used in an arbitrary manner against a woman and/or her partner/husband regarding pregnancy and abortion?
Today’s society is overly concerned about an individual being allowed to point the finger and accuse an individual, without trial or evidence, of wrong-doing and ruin their lives (think sexual harassment allegations) even while all the while being overly concerned with “victim’s rights.” But as the English jurist Sir William Blackstone had so famously stated, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.” Most of the Bill of Rights is concerned with the protections of the accused. Living in a time where advances in science and technology have advanced to such extremes (and are only likely to advance more in the future) that the government has an increasing ability to spy on its citizens and control their every move even when they are unaware of it, upholding the Bill of Rights becomes even more paramount. Ratification of a Bill of Rights was a prerequisite to many who termed themselves “anti-federalists” (or those who were against too strong of a national government). It was a prerequisite due to the fear that lack of a Federal Bill of Rights would lead to Congress enacting laws abridging the rights of the people.
On the other hand, there is clear and convincing evidence that the Bill of Rights does not contain all of the rights due to citizens, and the Federalist fear was that if a Bill of Rights was ratified it would lead to the belief that only those rights specifically enumerated and specifically mentioned in the Constitution would be accounted for. The Ninth Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”[xxix] Similarly the Fourth Amendment was adopted to redress the grievances caused by the issuance of general writs of assistance that caused widespread discontent among the colonists and were denounced by such historically famous men as James Otis.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.[xxx]
To address another question- are we a civilized society? There are many things that modern Americans simply do not seem to understand. In our fights over abortion, the right to die, the barbaric nature of the death penalty, gun control legislation and the waging of war, what is lost in the discussion is the very real and often brutal reality that some legally justified killings are necessary for the freedom, welfare, prosperity, and safety of a nation and its citizens. Included among the legally justified killings that civilized society recognizes is the necessity of waging war to protect the people of a nation and secure their peace and freedom, the right to use deadly force against one’s attacker in personal self-defense by the individual or by law enforcement for self-defense and public safety, the right to pre-viability abortion, and the right of a State to execute individuals who are convicted of certain classes of dangerous and heinous crimes. The taking of human life for any reason is brutal and barbaric, no matter the circumstances that surround it. But one must ask the question: How humane is a civilization, in reality, that never allows for the taking of life under any circumstances?
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court in the gut-wrenching 2008 case of Kennedy v Louisiana, stating, among other things, “Evolving standards of decency must embrace and express respect for the dignity of the person, and the punishment of criminals must conform to that rule…When the law punishes by death, it risks its own sudden descent into brutality, transgressing the constitutional commitment to decency and restraint…”[xxxi]
But again a question begs to be answered: Is this an example of a “civilized society?” More directly to this point: Most American freedoms today, including the right to self-defense,[xxxii] can be traced back to the laws of England, which granted to “freemen” many rights and freedoms, though these rights and freedoms were greatly expanded upon in America. Looking back to what was in another culture long gone or in other cultures around the world holds no legal or social weight in America even if we can never wisely cast aside history’s lessons. As Justice Alito stated in his majority opinion in McDonald et al v. City of Chicago, Illinois, et al, “…we must decide whether the right…is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty.”[xxxiii]
[xii] A History of the Supreme Court, supra, pp.201-202. “Peckham conception of law” refers to the legal jurisprudence of former associate justice of the United States Supreme Court Rufus Peckham, who was famous for utilizing “substantive due process” to invalidate state attempts at regulating the economy in favor of laissez-faire capitalism.
[xiii] Munn v Illinois, 94 U.S. 113, 134. (1876)
[xiv] A History of the Supreme Court, supra, p.258. Frankfurter quote from West Virginia Board of Education v Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 665 (1943)
[xv] Ante, at 224.
[xvi] Miranda v Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966); Dickerson v United States 530 U.S. 428 (2000) (Some “conservatives” such as O’Connor and Rehnquist in the majority, but this case was largely a battle between the Supreme Court and Congress)
[xvii] Gideon v Wainright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). During the Warren Court era, decision was unanimous. Earl Warren, though never claiming to be a great legal scholar, had a way of uniting the Court to deciding major landmark decisions unanimously, such as in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka (1) 347 U.S. 483 (1954) and Brown V Board of Education of Topeka (2) 349 U.S. 294 (1955), cases outlawing segregation of the races in public schools.
[xviii] Herrera v Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993); Lockyer v Andrade 538 U.S. 63 (2003)
[xix] Elkins v United States 364 U.S. 206 (1960) (Another Warren Court case ruling for the rights of criminal defendants.); Weeks v United States 232 U.S. 383 (1914).
[xx] Hudson v Michigan 547 U.S. 586 (2006). (“Conservatives” on the Roberts Court vote against rights of criminal defendants, though perhaps not unjustifiably in this particular case.); Wolf v Colorado 338 U.S. 25 (1949) (Overturned by the Warren Court in Mapp v Ohio 367 U.S. 643 (1961))
[xxi] Texas v Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989); United States v Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990); R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992). (the latter decision of R.A.V. was unanimous in favor of R.A.V., while the prior cited decisions were a bit mixed, but largely with “conservative” justices voting in the minority against flag burning as protected speech.)
[xxii] Minersville School District v Gobitis 310 U.S. 586 (1940); West Virginia Board of Education v Barnette 319 U.S. 624 (1943). (Within three years the Supreme Court had reversed itself on this issue)
[xxiii] Important post-9/11 cases include Hamdi v Rumsfeld 542 U.S. 507 (2004); Rasul v Bush 542 U.S. 466 (2004); Boumediene v Bush 553 U.S. 723 (2008). (“Conservative” forces on the Supreme Court have swung wildly in these cases revolving around habeas corpus petitions by detainees in Guantanamo Bay. It is a necessity for public safety that the rights of enemy combatants and criminal defendants are not granted in excessive and unreasonable amounts, yet at the same time the rights of those accused and detained to prove their innocence and challenge illegal detentions must be upheld where reasonable.)
[xxiv] See A History of the Supreme Court, supra, Chapter 15 Watershed Cases: Roe v. Wade, 1973. Writing in the early 1990s, Schwartz had the opportunity to do interviews with the justices from the Warren and Burger court eras, as well as interviews with their law clerks, and takes readers behind the scenes on some of the most important cases from these eras.
[xxv] 410 U.S. 113 at 129-41
[xxvi] Id. at 148-49 (footnote omitted)
[xxvii] 579 U.S._
[xxviii] Terry v Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968); Michigan v Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983); Alabama v White, 496 U.S. 325 (1990); United States v Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1 (1989). Under the “Plain Feel” or “Plain Touch” doctrine, evidence may also be seized in specific circumstances pursuant to a pat-down of the suspect’s outer garments. See Minnesota v Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366 (1993).
[xxix] U.S. Const. amend. IX.
[xxx] U.S. Const. amend. IV.
[xxxi] 544 U.S. _
[xxxii] According to Blackstone, common law required the citizen to first “retreat to the wall” before using deadly force against one’s fellow citizen, but in the early 19th century America, a new standard of having a “reasonable fear” for one’s life became the new standard after the murder trial where a jury acquitted Thomas Selfridge of the charge of the murder of Charles Austin, accepting the defense’s self-defense claim. For an overview, see Saul Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (1st. ed. 2006).
[xxxiii] 561 U.S. 742 at 767 (2010). (Citation omitted, emphasis in original).