Thursday, May 19, 2022
Alito’s opinion suggests that liberty is to be feared, not celebrated as a core feature of our constitutional heritage. “Liberty,” he insists, is a “capacious term” that could have hundreds of possible meanings, and he worries that the judiciary will engage in “freewheeling judicial policymaking” in the guise of protecting liberty. He insists that the Supreme Court should be extremely loath “to recognize rights not mentioned in the Constitution” for fear that the Supreme Court will “usurp authority that the Constitution entrusts to the people’s elected representatives.” Because liberty could mean anything, in his view, it means almost nothing.***
According to Alito, only the most overwhelming, centuries-old historical evidence—essentially the sort of historical grounding that rights in the Bill of Rights can point to—could possibly justify the protection of an unenumerated fundamental right. The right to abortion recognized in Roe v. Wade, he argues, spectacularly fails this test; extending his reasoning, so might the right of people of different races, or of the same sex, to marry—protected in Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges—and the right to use contraceptives protected by Griswold v. Connecticut, as others have pointed out. Alito’s opinion bulldozes a century of case law protecting fundamental rights to bodily integrity and marriage, and the right to decide for one’s own self whether, when, and with whom to form a family.
What fundamental rights have the kind of historical backing Alito seems to demand? What other fundamental rights can claim a historical lineage equivalent to rights in the Bill of Rights? Few, if any, would seem to measure up to the strict standard Alito lays out. That is not a bug, but a feature, of Alito’s approach. To Alito’s way of thinking, many of the rights we cherish as part of our heritage of liberty are not rights at all.
As future Supreme Court Justice James Iredell aptly observed, “Let any one make what collection or enumeration of rights he pleases, I will immediately mention twenty or thirty more rights not contained in it.” The Ninth Amendment, which provides that the “enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” codifies that essential idea.
Alito’s basic move defies the Constitution. He disparages the idea that we have fundamental rights that are basic to bodily integrity, human dignity, and equal citizenship, simply because they are not mentioned in the text. He flouts the rule of construction the Ninth Amendment prescribes.