Sunday, June 26, 2022
In writing today’s post, it is difficult to overlook the Supreme Court’s predictable rulings on abortion and guns, with a less certain but likely precedent-shattering decision on coach-led public-school prayer. Others will critique the decisions, extrapolate their consequences for issues beyond the cases decided, and speculate about new doctrinal implications. For today, I want to focus solely on the tools it suggests appellate advocates must use.
Dobbs and Bruen place a heightened emphasis on history. It is not the history that originalists who look to the Framers’ intent utilize, but whether an asserted constitutional liberty is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” In Dobbs, the majority rejected a constitutional right of access to abortion because it held that no historical tradition, common law or otherwise, enabled women to have abortions regardless of the legislative policy choices, before the Constitution’s framing or in its aftermath or even following the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Bruen, similarly, the Court held text, history, and tradition informed the meaning of the Second Amendment, with the Court holding that history without consideration of possible countervailing government interests dictates the result.
While the decisions fail to take account of constitutionally significant differences in the principles that animate modern society, including, for example, the equal status of women and minorities or the contemporary principle of religious tolerance, an essential approach to argument emerges from the decisions. First, advocates must focus on the relevance of historical analogy. Are historical restrictions on the exercise of a right animated by the same considerations that underlie a modern restriction? Thus, for example, it is well-accepted that online publications receive the same type of free-press protections that publications that emerged from hand-operated printing presses issued in large measure since the time of John Peter Zenger.
Even though Justice Breyer’s Bruen dissent criticized the majority’s use of “law office history,” the majority’s reliance upon it constitutes the order of the day. Justice Thomas’s majority opinion rejects contrarian historical examples as “outliers,” unworthy of bearing constitutional significance. Similarly, Justice Alito’s history of abortion in Dobbs seems to be selective about what history counts.
The two decisions, then, place a burden on an advocate to make the history that favors a position compelling and part of an unbroken narrative (except for insignificant outliers). Messy renditions of history open too many doors to predilection. That historical advocacy, then, also reflect timeless principles consistent with constitutional understandings.
A pure historical approach is not a complete stranger to constitutional law. The Seventh Amendment’s right to trial by jury has long adopted that approach, defining the scope of the right by how it was practiced at common law when the Bill of Rights was ratified. Thus, then-appellate advocate John Roberts won a unanimous victory, written by Justice Thomas, where the Court recognized that jurors have always served as the “‘judges of the damages,’” even under the English common law that predated the Constitution in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., 523 U.S. 340, 353 (19978) (quoting Lord Townshend v. Hughes, 86 Eng. Rep. 994, 994-995 (C.P. 1677)). The decision hinged, in large part, on close 18th-century analogues to the statutory copyright damages at issue in the case. Similarly, in invalidating administrative procedures utilized by the Securities and Exchange Commission the Fifth Circuit in Jarksey v. SEC, No. 20-61007, 34 F.4th 446, 451 (5th Cir. 2022), relied upon historical analysis to find that “[c]ivil juries in particular have long served as a critical check on government power,” so that the civil enforcement at issue could not be assigned to agency adjudication.
Where constitutional rights are at issue, history has become destiny.