The Supreme Court should reverse the Ninth Circuit and uphold Slaughter-House!

March 21

Courtney v. Danner is a case brought by the Institute for Justice challenging a government-imposed ferry monopoly as irrational and arbitrary, and therefore violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. Anyone who knows me knows that I believe the Supreme Court’s 1873 decision in The Slaughter-House Cases was an egregious mistake that has distorted the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment ever since. Yet today, Richard Epstein, Ilya Somin, James Ely, Josh Blackman, Chistopher Green and I submitted an amicus brief in this case urging the Supreme Court to grant cert and uphold Slaughter-House!  We make this claim because, in denying this challenge, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit eviscerated one of the few rights of that Slaughter-House affirmed as among the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”: the right “to use the navigable waters of the United States.” The Ninth Circuit ruled that this right did not include the use of navigable waters for economic purposes. Here is the summary of our argument as it appears in our brief:

In the early months of 1866, six senators and nine representatives met in Washington, DC to consider the Nation’s future in the wake of the Civil War. Known as the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, this group of congressmen was responsible for the most significant change to the country’s constitutional order since the enactment of the Bill of Rights seventy-five years before. The amendment that the Committee drafted, and the Nation adopted, secured to all citizens powerful new guarantees of liberty.

The Privileges or Immunities Clause was the linchpin of this transformation. With language commonly understood to encompass a rich tradition of natural liberty—tracing its origins through the Declaration of Independence to England’s Magna Carta—that Clause was designed to provide meaningful new protection against the States. Congress understood that this was a significant change. Presenting the amendment to the Senate, Senator Jacob Howard declared, “The great object of the [Privileges or Immunities Clause] is . . . to restrain the power of the States and to compel them at all times to respect these great fundamental guarantees.” Cong. Globe, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., 2766 (1866).

The Supreme Court retreated from that original design in The Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873), as four dissenting Justices recognized, id. at 83. Indeed, that decision has been accused of “strangling the privileges or immunities clause in its crib.” Akhil R. Amar, The Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, 101 Yale L. J. 1193, 1259 (1992). But the Slaughter-House majority was careful not to render the Clause a complete nullity. The Court enumerated a number of rights protected by the Clause, including a right to use navigable federal waterways. 83 U.S. at 79. Because petitioners here challenge a state law prohibiting them from operating their business on navigable federal waters, their claim falls squarely within that preserve.

Yet the Ninth Circuit below refused to recognize even those aspects of the Privileges or Immunities Clause that Slaughter-House retained. Applying the same overarching historical narrative deployed in Slaughter-House to downplay still further the extent to which the Clause was intended to effect any significant change, the Ninth Circuit announced that the rights enumerated in Slaughter-House must be “narrowly construed” when applied to “economic activities.” Courtney v. Goltz, 736 F.3d 1152, 1161 (9th Cir. 2013). The court thus held that the “economic rights protected by” the Clause are “limited to the right of travel,” and that the right to use navigable federal waterways does not include the right to “utilize those waters for a very specific professional venture.” Id. at 1160 & n.5.2

Certiorari is warranted to repudiate the Ninth Circuit’s further evisceration of the Privileges or Immunities Clause. The Clause was drafted in response to widespread restrictions of economic liberty, including limitations on the economic activities of former slaves. And the framers of the Clause used language commonly understood to incorporate a long tradition of natural law rights, including the right to pursue a lawful trade. The Ninth Circuit’s removal of economic activity from the scope of the Clause cannot be reconciled with history demonstrating that economic freedom lay at the provision’s core.

This case provides a particularly appropriate vehicle to begin, in a cautious and restrained fashion, the process of placing judicial interpretation of the Privileges or Immunities Clause on a proper historical foundation. This Court need not overrule Slaughter-House to reject the Ninth Circuit’s analysis; the Slaughter-House decision nowhere suggests that economic activity is excluded from the Clause, and Saenz v. Roe in fact precludes that interpretive gloss. Yet, because the Ninth Circuit’s fundamental disregard for history mirrors Slaughter-House, this case nonetheless presents an opportunity to correct the historical error perpetrated by the Slaughter-House majority. Simply by applying the holding of Slaughter-House, this Court would affirm that the Privileges or Immunities Clause must be interpreted
in light of a correct understanding of the circumstances of its adoption.

Because the petition does not call on the Court to overrule Slaughter-House, moreover, it raises none of the concerns that led the Court to reject reliance on the Privileges or Immunities Clause in McDonald v. City of Chicago, 130 S. Ct. 3020 (2010). Far from asking the Court to wipe clean the slate of precedent, the petition calls on the Court to uphold and apply its existing precedent in light of a proper understanding of the relevant history.

The Privileges or Immunities Clause is not a vestigial organ of our Constitution. It is binding law, and a central part of the transformation effected by the Fourteenth Amendment. By taking even the smallest step to affirm that to be true, this Court will reject the odious suggestion that an unelected judiciary may vitiate protections secured to the People through amendment to the Constitution.

The petition for certiorari should be granted.

Our brief provides a concise summary of the origin, adoption and original meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause, and how that meaning included economic as well as personal liberty. You can read it here.

As I explain in Does The Constitution Protect Economic Liberties?, the distinction between “economic” and “personal” liberty is anachronistic as applied to the Founding, or to the period in which the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were ratified. Indeed, slavery itself was, in important part, a system of economic subordination and exploitation. So too was Jim Crow.  The distinction between “economic” and “personal” liberty was devised by progressives to justify the pervasive regulation of the economy, while attempting to preserve some domain of judicially protected liberty. Reading that distinction into the text of the Constitution protecting “the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” is an act of judicial creativity, rather than interpretation.

Randy Barnett is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory, Georgetown University Law Center, and Director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. His books include: Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (Princeton, 2d. ed 2014); and The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law (Oxford, 2d. ed. 2014).
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