Substantive Due Process: General Approach
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
A counterpart to the now-discredited economic substantive due process, noneconomic substantive due process is still vital today. The concept has come to include disparate lines of cases, and various labels have been applied to the rights protected, including “fundamental rights,” “privacy rights,” “liberty interests” and “incorporated rights.” The binding principle of these cases is that they involve rights so fundamental that the courts must subject any legislation infringing on them to close scrutiny. This analysis, criticized by some for being based on extra-constitutional precepts of natural law,1 serves as the basis for some of the most significant constitutional holdings of our time. For instance, the application of the Bill of Rights to the states, seemingly uncontroversial today, is based not on constitutional text, but on noneconomic substantive due process and the “incorporation” of fundamental rights.2 Other noneconomic due process holdings, however, such as the cases establishing the right of a woman to have an abortion,3 remain controversial.
A problem confronting the Court is how such abstract rights, once established, are to be delineated. For instance, the constitutional protections afforded to marriage, family, and procreation in Griswold have been extended by the Court to apply to married and unmarried couples alike.4 However, in Bowers v. Hardwick,5 the Court majority rejected a challenge to a Georgia sodomy law despite the fact that it prohibited types of intimate activities engaged in by married as well as unmarried couples.6 Then, in Lawrence v. Texas,7 the Supreme Court reversed itself, holding that a Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in intimate sexual conduct violates the Due Process Clause.
More broadly, in Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court, in an effort to guide and “restrain” a court’s determination of the scope of substantive due process rights, held that the concept of “liberty” protected under the Due Process Clause should first be understood to protect only those rights that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” 8 Moreover, the Court in Glucksberg required a “careful description” of fundamental rights that would be grounded in specific historical practices and traditions that serve as “crucial guideposts for responsible decisionmaking.” 9 However, the Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges largely departed from Glucksberg’s formulation for assessing fundamental rights in holding that the Due Process Clause required states to license and recognize marriages between two people of the same sex.10 Instead, the Obergefell Court recognized that fundamental rights do not “come from ancient sources alone” and instead must be viewed in light of evolving social norms and in a “comprehensive” manner.11 For the Obergefell Court, the two-part test relied on in Glucksberg—relying on history as a central guide for constitutional liberty protections and requiring a “careful description” of the right in question—was “inconsistent” with the approach taken in cases discussing certain fundamental rights, including the rights to marriage and intimacy, and would result in rights becoming stale, as “received practices could serve as their own continued justification and new groups could not invoke rights once denied.” 12
Similar disagreement over the appropriate level of generality for definition of a liberty interest was evident in Michael H. v. Gerald D., involving the rights of a biological father to establish paternity and associate with a child born to the wife of another man.13 While recognizing the protection traditionally afforded a father, Justice Scalia, joined only by Chief Justice Rehnquist in this part of the plurality decision, rejected the argument that a non-traditional familial connection (i.e. the relationship between a father and the offspring of an adulterous relationship) qualified for constitutional protection, arguing that courts should limit consideration to “the most specific level at which a relevant tradition protecting, or denying protection to, the asserted right can be identified.” 14 Dissenting Justice Brennan, joined by two others, rejected the emphasis on tradition, and argued instead that the Court should “ask whether the specific parent-child relationship under consideration is close enough to the interests that we already have protected [as] an aspect of ‘liberty.’” 15
- See, e.g., Raoul Berger,Government by Judiciary: The Transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment (Cambridge: 1977).
- See supra Bill of Rights, The Fourteenth Amendment and Incorporation.
- See Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 164 (1973).
- See, e.g., Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972). “If under Griswold the distribution of contraceptives to married persons cannot be prohibited, a ban on distribution to unmarried persons would be equally impermissible. It is true that in Griswold the right of privacy in question inhered in the marital relationship. Yet the marital couple is not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own, but an association of two individuals each with a separate intellectual and emotional makeup. If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” 405 U.S. at 453.
- 478 U.S. 186 (1986).
- The Court upheld the statute only as applied to the plaintiffs, who were homosexuals, 478 U.S. at 188 (1986), and thus rejected an argument that there is a “fundamental right of homosexuals to engage in acts of consensual sodomy.” Id. at 192–93. In a dissent, Justice Blackmun indicated that he would have evaluated the statute as applied to both homosexual and heterosexual conduct, and thus would have resolved the broader issue not addressed by the Court—whether there is a general right to privacy and autonomy in matters of sexual intimacy. Id. at 199–203 (Justice Blackmun dissenting, joined by Justices Brennan, Marshall and Stevens).
- 539 U.S. 558 (2003) (overruling Bowers).
- See 521 U.S. 702, 720–21 (1997).
- See id. at 721 (internal citations and quotations omitted).
- See 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2602 (2015).
- See id. at 2602–03.
- See id. at 2602.
- 491 U.S. 110 (1989). Five Justices agreed that a liberty interest was implicated, but the Court ruled that California’s procedures for establishing paternity did not unconstitutionally impinge on that interest.
- 491 U.S. at 128 n.6.
- 491 U.S. at 142 .
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