WASHINGTON — Of conservatives’ few victories this year, the most cherished came when the Supreme Court, in District of Columbia vs. Heller, held for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms. Now, however, a distinguished conservative jurist argues that the court’s ruling was mistaken and had the principal flaws of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 abortion ruling that conservatives execrate as judicial overreaching. Both rulings, says J. Harvie Wilkinson, suddenly recognized a judicially enforceable right grounded in “an ambiguous constitutional text.”
Writing for the Virginia Law Review, Judge Wilkinson of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says Heller, like Roe, was disrespectful of legislative judgments, has hurled courts into a political thicket of fine-tuning policy in interminable litigation, and traduced federalism. Furthermore, Heller exposed “originalism” — the doctrine that the Constitution’s text means precisely what those who wrote its words meant by them — as no barrier to “judicial subjectivity.”
The Second Amendment says: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Until June, the question was: Is the right guaranteed to individuals and unconnected with military service, or only to states as they exercise their right to maintain militias? The court held, 5-4, for the former view.
In Roe, the court said the 14th Amendment guarantee of “due process” implies a general right of privacy, within which lurks a hitherto unnoticed abortion right that, although “fundamental,” the Framers never mentioned. And this right somehow contains the trimester scheme of abortion regulations.
Since 1973, the court has been entangled in the legislative function of adumbrating an abortion code, the details of which are, Wilkinson says, “not even remotely suggested by the text or history of the 14th Amendment.” Parental consent? Spousal consent? Spousal notification? Parental notification? Waiting periods? Lack of funding for nontherapeutic abortions? Partial-birth abortion procedures? Zoning ordinances that exclude abortion facilities? The court has tried to tickle answers for these and other policy questions from the Constitution.
Conservatives are correct: The court, having asserted a right on which the Constitution is silent, has been writing rules that are detailed, debatable, inescapably arbitrary and irreducibly political. But now, Wilkinson says, conservatives are delighted that Heller has put the court on a similar path.
In Heller, the court was at least dealing with a right the Constitution actually mentions. But the majority and minority justices demonstrated that there are powerful, detailed, historically grounded “originalist” arguments for opposite understandings of what the Framers intended with that right to “keep and bear arms.”
Now the court must slog through an utterly predictable torrent of litigation, writing, piecemeal, a federal gun code concerning the newfound individual right. What trigger locks or other safety requirements impermissibly burden the exercise of this right? What registration requirements, background checks, waiting periods for purchasers, ballistic identifications? What restrictions on ammunition? On places where guns may be purchased or carried? On the kinds of people (e.g., those with domestic violence records) who may own guns? On the number of gun purchases in a month?
Judicial conservatism requires judges to justify their decisions with reference to several restraining principles, including deference to the democratic branches of government, and to states’ responsibilities under federalism. But, Wilkinson writes, Heller proves that when the only principle is originalism, and when conscientious people come to different conclusions about the Framers’ intentions, originalist judges must resolve the conflict by voting their policy preferences.
It has been said that the most important word in the Supreme Court’s lexicon is not “liberty” or “equality” or even “justice,” it is “five.” But whereas in baseball a tie goes to the runner, in controversies about the constitutionality of legislation, a tie between serious arguments should, Wilkinson says, tilt judicial judgment to the democratic side — the legislature.
When rights are unambiguously enumerated, courts should protect them vigorously. But Wilkinson says that when a right’s definition is debatable, generous judicial deference should be accorded to legislative judgments — particularly those of the states, which should enjoy constitutional space to function as laboratories for testing policy variations.
Roe and Heller, says Wilkinson, diminish liberty by “handing our democratic destiny to the courts.” Many libertarian conservatives disagree, arguing that the protection of individual liberty requires robust judicial circumscription of democracy.
So, regarding judging, too, conservatism is a house divided. And as Lincoln said (sort of), a house divided against itself is really interesting.
George Will is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.