Dellinger on Souter on social change and the Supreme Court

by on July 3, 2009  •  In Constitutional law, Supreme Court

By Walter Dellinger, from Slate, writing on the role of public opinion in Supreme Court decision-making:

…It was not a mere coincidence that when the court stuck down homosexual sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, the number of states that still had such laws was about the same as the number of states that still had de jure school segregation when Brown was decided—in each case, the retrograde states made up about one-fourth of the country. In contrast, when the court sustained state laws banning the use of lethal medication in Washington v. Glucksberg, the rejected claim of a right to physician-assisted suicide had not yet been recognized by even a single state.

What makes these questions so timely is that David Souter … addressed these issues in a very powerful way just [before leaving the Court] in an passage that may well have been intended as a valedictory message to the court and a caution to those who litigate on behalf of individual liberty. In his dissent in the DNA case, District Attorney's Office v. Osborne, Souter wrote extensively about issues of substantive liberty that he did not need to address in order to decide the case before him. He obviously had some things he really wanted to say before hanging up his black robe.

In his essay-within-an-opinion, Souter clearly had the sweep of the court's future in mind, and not just any single issue. It is still hard to avoid the conclusion that one issue in his mind was gay marriage. His carefully nuanced message both defends the legitimacy of judicial recognition of "non-traditional" rights and cautions against a premature quest for national judicial rules.

Souter, recognizing the value of "continuity with the past," accepts the proposition that tradition is a "serious consideration" in judging whether a practice is "outside the realm of reasonable governmental action." He rejects, however, the notion that tradition defines and limits the scope of the liberties entitled to judicial protection against hostile legislation.

A true originalist, Souter refuses to limit individual rights to the time-bound set of liberties that the Framers of the 14th Amendment would have include had they chosen to adopt a specific list. The short answer is that the Framers did not so choose. They deliberately wrote with a broad brush and left particular applications to the future. In carrying out that mandate, Souter writes, the court must look to "widely shared understandings within the national society" that can change "as interests claimed under the rubric of liberty evolve into recognition."

Having defended the concept of evolving liberty, Souter then turns to the important question of when it would be "premature for the Judicial Branch to decide whether … a general right should be recognized."

"The beginning of wisdom," he writes, "is to go slow." Before declaring "unsympathetic state or national laws arbitrary to the point of being unconstitutional," he writes, a wise court will "recognize how much time society needs in order to work through a given issue."

His opinion then takes what seems to be an extraordinarily personal turn. He may be speaking of himself (or his rural neighbors) when his says that "[w]e can change our own inherited views just so fast, and a person is not labeled a stick-in-the-mud for refusing to endorse a new moral claim without having some time to work through it intellectually and emotionally." Sometimes, he says, "an attachment to the familiar and the limits of experience" limit "an individual's capacity to see the potential legitimacy of a moral position."

So, too, it is with the broader society, which "needs the chance to take part in the dialectic of public and political back and forth about a new liberty claim." Souter's final message to his conservative colleagues is that conceptions of liberty evolve. And his last caution to those litigators pushing the frontiers of liberty is that nations, like individuals, need time to assimilate new thinking….


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *