Know Your Constitution (7): What Is Substantive Due Process/Right of Privacy?
This is another in a series of posts written about the Constitution in everyday language, with a minimum of legal jargon. Previous posts introduced the Constitution, rebutted some commonly held myths about the Constitution, addressed the Equal Protection Clause, considered free speech and hate speech and discussed procedural due process.
The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause applies to the federal government (“No person … shall …be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”).
The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause applies to state and local governments (“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”).
Distinguishing Between Procedural Due Process and Substantive Due Process
The immediately preceding post deals with procedural due process which focuses on fair and timely procedures.
It is far less complicated and controversial than substantive due process, the subject of this post, which focuses on government regulation of conduct such as abortion, sexual conduct and certain family matters.
One reason that substantive due process is so controversial is that it is not explicitly based in the text of the Constitution, thereby suggesting to some that the Supreme Court has acted improperly and has simply (or not so simply) made it up.
The History of Substantive Due Process: Economic Regulation/Family
The term “substantive due process” is a bit of an oxymoron since “due process” suggests procedure in contrast to substance. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court, beginning in the late 19th century and ending in the mid-1930’s, used substantive due process to strike down many state regulations dealing with economic matters such as employment relationships, work conditions and other attempts to regulate business interests.
Interestingly, perhaps the first use of substantive due process by the Supreme Court was in the infamous Dred Scott case in antebellum America. Here, the Court held that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because it took away the property of slaveholders and thus violated substantive due process.
Even though substantive due process was typically identified with economic regulation, there was an important component that dealt with liberty in family matters. For example, in the 1920’s the Supreme Court ruled (in Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters) that states violated substantive due process when they prohibited parents from arranging to have their children learn the German language and also when they required all children to attend a public school while prohibiting them from attending religious private schools. These decisions thus address the non-economic, family related liberty component of substantive due process.
The Retreat from Substantive Due Process in Economic Matters
The high-water mark of substantive due process in economic regulation matters may have been reached in the early part of the 20th century in the (in)famous Lochner v. New York case. Here the Court struck down a New York statute that regulated the maximum hours that bakers could work as a violation of the liberty of contract of employers and employees to negotiate hours and working conditions in general without government interference.
But starting in the mid-1930’s, the Court retreated dramatically from intervening judicially in such matters (one aspect of what some have called “the switch in time that saved nine” in response to President Roosevelt‘s court-packing plan). Eventually the Court became incredibly deferential to state (and federal) regulation of economic matters, using in most such cases what lawyers call a “conceivable rational basis” test. In other words, so long as an economic regulation could be considered to have a rational basis, it did not violate substantive due process.
Current Substantive Due Process/Privacy Doctrine
Even though meaningful substantive due process review is now effectively dead in economic regulation matters, it has survived and subsequently thrived as applied to liberty in family and sexual matters.
There were hints of what was to come in Skinner v. Oklahoma, a 1942 equal protection decision that struck down sterilization as criminal punishment. Here, Justice Douglas famously said: “Marriage and procreation are fundamental to the very existence and survival of the [human] race.” But it was only in Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision invalidating a criminal prohibition against the use of contraceptives by married persons, that the Court expressly recognized a constitutional right of marital privacy, though there remained some question of its source in the text.
Thereafter, the Court expanded this right of privacy beyond marriage to include the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy in certain circumstances, largely on family/personal autonomy grounds. Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which modified Roe, are the leading cases so ruling on the basis of substantive due process. However, the Court in 2007 cut back somewhat on the scope of the right in Gonzalez v. Carhart, at least in cases dealing with statutes prohibiting so-called “partial birth abortions.”
Finally, in Lawrence v. Texas, a blockbuster 2003 decision, the Court held, in an opinion by Justice Kennedy, that states may not criminalize intimate homosexual conduct. The ground here was expressly personal autonomy: “Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.”
As things now stand, Roe, as modified by Casey and Carhart, is still good law. Lawrence remains good law as well.
The hot issue regarding homosexual conduct that is currently percolating in the circuits is the substantive due process question whether the right to marry someone of your own sex is a fundamental right
protected by substantive due process.