Granted, where politics operates — where collective decisions are made for the polity — majorities should generally have their way. But a vast portion of life should be exempt from control by majorities. And when the political branches do not respect a capacious zone of private sovereignty, courts should police the zone’s borders. Otherwise, individuals’ self-governance of themselves is sacrificed to self-government understood merely as a prerogative of majorities.
The Constitution is a companion of the Declaration of Independence and should be construed as an implementation of the Declaration’s premises, which include: Government exists not to confer rights but to “secure” preexisting rights; the fundamental rights concern the liberty of individuals, not the prerogatives of the collectivity — least of all when it acts to the detriment of individual liberty.
Will writes a twice-a-week column on politics and domestic affairs.
Wilkinson cites Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as a practitioner of admirable judicial modesty. But restraint needs a limiting principle, lest it become abdication. Holmes said: “If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job.” No, a judge’s job is to judge, which includes deciding whether majorities are misbehaving at the expense of individual liberty.
Justice Felix Frankfurter, whose restraint Wilkinson praises, said that the Constitution is “not a document but a stream of history.” If so, it is not a constitution; it cannot constitute if its meanings are fluid and constantly flowing in the direction of the preferences of contemporary majorities.
The Constitution is a document, one understood — as America’s greatest jurist, John Marshall, said — “chiefly from its words.” And those words are to be construed in the bright light cast by the Declaration. Wilkinson worries about judges causing “an ever-increasing displacement of democracy.” Also worrisome, however, is the displacement of liberty by democracy in the form of majorities indifferent or hostile to what the Declaration decrees — a spacious sphere of individual sovereignty.