An Almost Archeological Dig: Finding a Surprisingly Rich Early Understanding of Substantive Due Process

By Weinberg, Louise | Constitutional Commentary, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

An Almost Archeological Dig: Finding a Surprisingly Rich Early Understanding of Substantive Due Process


Weinberg, Louise, Constitutional Commentary


There exists a hitherto unnoticed early disquisition on substantive due process, setting out in 1840 a theory of substantive due process far more powerful than the bare-bones concept Chief Justice Taney would deploy seventeen years later in Dred Scott. This remarkable text has languished in obscurity until now because it is layered over and threaded through with matters extraneous to it. It exists buried within the report of an oral argument about a different question, (1) in a case, Holmes v. Jennison, (2) about a wholly unrelated problem. (3) The ancient relic has now been unearthed, in an almost archeological dig, by separating its fragments from the layered deposit in which it is submerged, as if lifting the clay from a potsherd.

With a single exception, (4) a 1993 paper on the Ninth Amendment, I have found no mention of this old argument of counsel in books or articles or cases. There appears to be no quotation or excerpt from it. As far as the Tarlton Law Library, Westlaw, or Google can discover--apart from the exception noted--the argument has no existence beyond the official reports of the case in which it appeared. And in the 1993 paper in which this argument of counsel is mentioned, there is no recognition of the existence of the surprisingly rich theory of due process discoverable within it.

The fons et origo of substantive due process is commonly supposed (5) to be Dred Scott, (6) the first Supreme Court case to strike down an act of Congress on a substantive due process ground. But scholarly examination of antebellum case law has shown that at least a skeletal concept of substantive due process, as it appears in Dred Scott, was already familiar at the time Dred Scott was decided. (7) Lawyers and judges understood, then as now, the half-substantive, half-procedural point that due process requires reasonable law. Arbitrary or irrational law is not due process. (8) Nor may good law be applied unreasonably, either by officials or judges. Nor may officials take other arbitrary or irrational action. Such acts or laws are not the process that is due. (10)

But writers have found little, if any, early intimation that due process was thought to protect fundamental rights. Where in our early cases can we find an understanding that the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment protects fundamental, substantive liberties? Liberties not enumerated in the Bill of Rights?

To be sure, Dred Scott's due process might be read to have protected liberty as well as property, specifically implicating a right to travel. Taney declared, referring to the Fifth Amendment, that a law that has the effect of destroying a man's property, merely because he travels with his property to a place at which such property has been abolished by law, cannot be due process. (11) But Taney's was hardly an encompassing vision of fundamental unenumerated rights. Nothing in his terse pronouncement protecting property from confiscation by action of law necessarily implied specific protection even for property rights already mentioned in the Bill of Rights. (Today, of course, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment literally does protect against state violations of rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, by "incorporating" them.) Rather, Taney was saying, in line with the most expansive general understandings of the time, that due process substantively protects against law that is arbitrary and unreasonable. Dred Scott's protection against unreasonable law also did not necessarily imply protection against violation of rights which, like the right to travel, are not enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but which may be as fundamental as those that are.

Yet identifiable fundamental rights, although unenumerated, would seem to call for judicial protection. The Ninth Amendment acknowledges the existence of such rights and cautions that the Constitution not be construed in disparagement or in derogation of them. …

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