Rights Signals from the bench.(COMMENTARY)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

Rights Signals from the bench.(COMMENTARY)


Byline: Roger Barrus and David Marion, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Americans have grown accustomed to seeing judicial officials strike down laws and government regulations

in the name of preserving adequate breathing space for expression. Again this term, which is quickly coming to an end, the U.S. Supreme Court used it judicial review powers to overturn legislative action that might "chill" expression that was far from the minds of James Madison and the other members of Congress who labored over the language of the First Amendment.

Following on its tough handling of the Communications Decency Act in a 1997 case, the court declared in April that critical provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act were overbroad and unconstitutional (Ashcroft vs. Free Speech Coalition). One month later the court remanded a challenge to the Child Online Protection Act with the observation that the statute might be unconstitutionally vague and thus would not be able to survive strict scrutiny (Ashcroft vs. ACLU). The message being sent by the Supreme Court has not been missed by lower courts.

Following the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court, state and federal judges have been systematically shrinking the government's, and hence the people's, ability to act in the name of self-defense or self-preservation since the 1960s. Earlier this spring, for example, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision overturning the conviction of an Arizona man under a law designed to curb gang-related activities. The court concluded in McCoy vs. Stewart that the advice that the defendant gave gang leaders about how they could improve the efficiency of their activities was "abstract advocacy of lawlessness" protected by the First Amendment.

The matter-of-fact way in which decisions favoring individual autonomy and expression are handed down is as striking as the substance of many of the verdicts. Perhaps no better evidence of the weddedness of the judiciary to this thinking can be found than the opinion written by three Republican nominees to the court (Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter) in the last major abortion case, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey (1992). Their joint opinion equates the right to privacy with the "right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." Not only does this passage make no reference to the duties or responsibilities of citizens, it leaves minimal space for government and society to act in the defense of collective interests.

Until recently, terms such as human dignity, autonomy and personal identity did not constitute the critical language of constitutional law. Use of all or most of these terms, however, is a virtual requirement for a scholarly work in constitutional rights to be taken seriously today. These works, in turn, mimic what has become the standard rhetoric of the judiciary, especially in cases involving appeals to privacy rights and freedom of expression. As evidenced by the Casey case, even justices appointed by moderate to conservative Republican presidents have embraced the rhetoric of human autonomy, personhood and identity creation.

Although a common practice, there is a troublesome side to the incorporation of philosophical principles of human dignity and autonomy into constitutional decisionmaking. Sober constitutional reasoning needs to address practical matters of governance and must contend every day with the challenge of balancing competing appeals to individual rights on the one hand and to decency and competence in government on the other. …

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