Economic Freedoms and the Constitution

By Rosen, Jeffrey | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Economic Freedoms and the Constitution


Rosen, Jeffrey, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


I would like to defend the traditional conservative view that judges should not second-guess political debates in the name of amorphous rights that do not appear in the text or history of the Constitution. (1) Indeed, that promise was precisely what attracted me to the Federalist Society in law school when I was a bipartisan renegade who, trying to evade the glances of my professors, would sneak into Federalist Society meetings. I received with relish the Federalist claims that liberal justices were short-circuiting all of our most important political debates by making up rights that do not appear in the text of the Constitution (like the right to privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut) (2) and, as a result, that those justices were not interpreting the law but instead making it.

I was surprised, therefore, to discover in recent years a libertarian movement that has called into question those Federalist Society axioms. (3) Some libertarians now argue that Lochner is defensible and that a great number of laws and regulations might be struck down in the name of unenumerated rights that have the most tenuous roots in the text or history of the Constitution. (4) Not all conservatives, however, are sympathetic to this invitation to economic judicial activism. There have actually been three separate strains of legal conservatism over the past 30 years: libertarian conservatives, tea party conservatives, and pro-executive power conservatives. (5)

There are significant tensions among these three strands of legal conservatism. When it was founded in the 1980s, the Federalist Society was initially successful at persuading conservatives to paper over those tensions by converging around a common rhetoric of "original understanding" and "judicial restraint." (6) But that spirit of unity did not last long. As conservatives began to receive appointments to the federal appellate courts during the Reagan administration, divisions among the three strands began to emerge. (7)

Perhaps the most striking division was the one between libertarians and conservatives who tended to back executive power. This conflict was on display in a debate between then-Judge Scalia and Professor Richard Epstein. (8) It was held at the CATO Institute in 1984. (9) Judge Scalia addressed a standing-room-only crowd and defended the view that judges should restrain themselves from overturning laws in the name of rights or liberties not clearly and expressly enumerated in the Constitution. (10) The "reversal of a half-century of judicial restraint in the economic realm," he said, "posed a threat to constitutional democracy." (11) Judge Scalia argued that conservatives who had criticized the Warren Court for liberal judicial activism now faced a "moment of truth": They had to show the courage to reject conservative judicial activism in the economic arena as well. (12)

When Professor Epstein heard what Judge Scalia had to say, he delivered a spontaneous attack on Scalia's position. Freely admitting he was questioning the conservative conventional wisdom, he said judges should be much more aggressive in protecting economic liberty. (13) There are many blatantly inappropriate statutes that call out for a quick and easy kill, he said, citing price controls and other legislative regulation of the economy. (14) He excoriated the Supreme Court for refusing to strike those laws down. (15)

That debate established a clear distinction between proexecutive power conservatives like Justice Scalia, who are suspicious of economic judicial activism, and libertarians like Professor Epstein and Professor Randy Barnett, who support aggressive enforcement of unenumerated rights, such as the liberty of contract. They both, for example, favor striking down the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA). (16) Their avatar on the Supreme Court is not Justice Scalia but Justice Kennedy, who is the libertarian justice most sympathetic to their views. …

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