Balkinization  

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Scalia on Sex Equality

JB

Nothing that Justice Scalia says in his recent interview with California Lawyer should be news to anyone who has followed his jurisprudence closely. But I do have a few bones to pick with him about his originalist claims. (Before I begin, it's worth noting that throughout the interview Scalia seems to assume that the original meaning of the Constitution is pretty much identical to how the adopting generation would have applied its provisions; for the purposes of this posting, I will accept his account of originalist methodology, although it is not my own.)

First, The central purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to guarantee equal citizenship and equality before the law for all citizens and for all persons. It does not simply ban discrimination based on race. The fact that the word race is not mentioned in the text (as it is in the fifteenth amendment) was quite deliberate.

Scalia argues that the fourteenth amendment was not intended to prevent sex discrimination. That's not entirely true. The supporters of the fourteenth amendment did not think it would disturb the common law rules of coverture: under these rules women lost most of their common law rights upon marriage under the fiction that their legal identities were merged with their husbands. But these rules did not apply to single women. So in fact, the fourteenth amendment was intended to prohibit some forms of sex discrimination-- discrimination in basic civil rights against single women.

Moreover, the Constitution was subsequently amended. After the nineteenth amendment, the common law coverture rules made little sense. If married women had the right to vote, why did they not have the right to contract or own property in their own names? If we read the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of civil equality in light of the Nineteenth Amendment, the guarantee of sex equality should apply to both single and married women. The conservative court during the Lochner era thought as much in a case called Adkins v. Children's Hospital, decided immediately after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Scalia argues that if contemporary generations want to protect women, they can pass antidiscrimination laws and nothing in the original understanding of the Constitution forbids this. But this is not quite correct. The federal government would not be able to pass civil rights laws protecting women from discrimination; only states and local governments could. That is because if judges followed what the Constitution's framers expected, federal regulatory power would be greatly constricted and, among other things, the Civil Rights Act of 1964's ban on sex discrimination would be unconstitutional because it would beyond federal power to enact. Justice Scalia would surely vote to uphold much federal legislation today (see his concurrence in the medical marijuana case, Gonzales v. Raich), but that is because he accepts the New Deal revolution, which he well knows is not consistent with original understandings about the scope of federal power. So Scalia's arguments about what modern majorities can do today rest on his view that a very significant proportion of constitutional understandings of the framers can simply be jettisoned because they make little sense in today's world. That is to say, he doesn't really believe in originalism either when it comes to a very wide array of cases concerning federal governmental power.

Second, if Scalia had really wanted to be faithful to the expectations and assumptions of the the adopters of the Fourteenth Amendment, he had no business joining the opinion in Bush v. Gore, because the Amendment was not intended to change state rules concerning the right to vote.

During the interview Justice Scalia says that he doesn't even need to read the briefs to know what originalism permits, requires or forbids; but I would respectfully suggest he needs to read a bit more history.

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