Amendment 8

Panel Recap: Individual Rights

The panelists on the Individual Rights panel pushed the boundaries of the panel’s theme in two ways.  First, they did not engage in a definitional debate as to what individual rights are protected by the Constitution.  They instead focused either on creating a framework that would allow other actors to engage in the interpretation debate or on theorizing new tools for realizing constitutional rights.  Second, the panelists suggested that a progressive vision of individual rights in 2020 may not be focused on the individual at all – the best way to protect individual rights may be through a reimagination of the social infrastructure. 
As Professor Rick Garnett noted, the quintessential image associated with individual rights, that of the lone dissenter, is still important; it remains the recipient of these rights and one of its protectors.  However, the de-contextualized individual was largely absent from a conversation about individual rights that was dominated by institutions, social organizations and movements, identity groups, and our social environment.
This is not to suggest that the panelists’ presentations were similar; as you'll see, although the panelists shared some common ground, each tackled divergent aspects of this broad category of constitutional rights:

Video courtesy of Yale Law School.

Professor Elizabeth Emens started the discussion off by positing that anti-discrimination law is trapped in an “individual bad actor” model which fails to address institutional structures that lead to disparate impact, and that a progressive vision of individual rights must correct this failure.  She suggested that disability law may be a helpful analytical tool for reimagining “the anti-discrimination project.”  By locating the idea of disability between the individual’s impairment and the social environment, disability law is able to “focus on structural change without losing sight of the individuals,” a focus that Professor Emens is optimistic might benefit anti-discrimination law.
Professor Garnett and Professor Paul Horwitz both argued institutions are not only mediums through which people may express their rights, but also are [mechanisms?] capable of protecting these rights.  Professor Garnett argued that the right to religious freedom is best protected and served by ensuring that non-state institutions, including churches and other religious organizations, flourish.  Professor Horwitz posited that the First Amendment doctrine would be best served by learning from the best practices these institutions have developed over time, and by reconsidering the relationship between courts, institutions, and the rights themselves.  In the long run, they argue, protecting these institutions may be the best way to protect the rights of the individual—even acknowledging that these institutions may not always support those individual rights. 
Professor Alice Ristoph concluded the panelist presentation portion of the session.  She discussed the possibility of identifying an anti-violence norm in the Constitution.  While anti-discrimination would only prevent the use of [more?] force against one group, Professor Ristoph expressed some optimism that the Constitution might contain instead a norm that curtails the government’s use of violence in pursuit of goals such as criminal justice or national security.  She also expressed concern that the constitution and citizens themselves may be used to rationalize government violence.
The panelists considered several intriguing questions posed by audience members during the later half of the panel. Professor Emens and Professor Ristoph debated about how much work anti-discrimination might do in bringing about an anti-violence norm.  In response, Paul Kahn, who moderated the panel, suggested that their debate illuminated two distinct views of state action as an actor in the protection of state rights: either rights constrain the state, or they guide the state toward positive obligations of accommodation. 
Judith Resnik challenged the premise that federal courts might assist in identifying and protecting an anti-violence norm, noting that they often have tolerated vast amounts of violence.  She also asked how a social movement might engender actors who are less frightened and more willing to support this norm.  Although her points were directed toward Professor Ristoph, others queried whether different fears—of stigmatization and vulnerability—might prevent people from linking disability law with anti-discrimination law. 
Reva Siegel expressed concern that the accommodation model of disability law may be too general a mode of equality that lacks the “granular, group-specific answers” that are needed because discrimination affects distinct communities and groups differently.
Professor Horwitz acknowledged that he and the other panelists have theories that, if implemented, would substantially change the toolkit currently in use for protecting individual rights.  He considered whether it is worth changing the toolkit, given the transition costs of doing so; and whether these additions and changes illuminate the appropriate tools to use.    
The panelists and audience members raised a number of important issues; here, I offer a few additional questions that hopefully build upon these contributions.  First, I noted above that the panelists tread common ground in their treatment of the individual in relation to other actors.  Taking first the theories of Professor Garnett and Professor Horwitz – the strength and historical significance of institutions both support their theories, but also beg the question as to how much stronger non-state actors should be made; is there a tipping point beyond which they will no longer be protectors of individual rights and instead become limits to these rights? Even if social organizations shore up individual rights in the long run, is this enough to warrant the strengthening of institutions that may not be supportive of some rights of the individual? 
This question might be asked more broadly of all the panelists: in a discussion of contextualized individual rights, what is the right balance between the lone dissenter, the individual as a social being, non-state institutions, and the government?  Finally, what happens to any of the theses presented when we consider a fact that emerged from the discussion: that individuals, social organizations, and even the state may be either a useful tool for protecting or a roadblock to the realization of constitutional protected rights, in addition to being the intended recipient of these rights?

Discrimination, Violence, and the Constitution

Crosspost from Balkinization

The essays in The Constitution in 2020 ask not only what the Constitution can do for us, but what we can do for the Constitution. In other words, the book offers both visions of what constitutional law should be and concrete suggestions for how to make it so. Optimism—pragmatic, cautious, yet still resolute—characterizes discussions of equal protection, social and economic rights, free speech, and religious liberty. The book says very little, however, about the most litigated provisions of the Bill of Rights, the provisions to which individuals facing an exercise of state power most often appeal. I refer to constitutional criminal procedure, and I wonder: Is the criminal justice system no place for constitutional optimism? Is criminal justice a realm where we can do little with the Constitution, and where it can do little for us?

American policing and punishment practices are characterized by considerable racial and economic disparities. And at least at a certain level of abstraction, equality is a powerful constitutional norm. So we might look for constitutional levers to address inequality in the criminal justice system. Tracey Meares takes this approach in “The Progressive Past,” the sole essay in The Constitution in 2020 directly focused on criminal justice. As Meares notes, in the 1960s and 1970s, courts applied constitutional protections for criminal defendants in attempts to address widespread racial discrimination. But this project was never fully successful, and at any rate, in more recent decades courts have read the Bill of Rights to provide much narrower protections to defendants and thus to permit a much wider range of state practices. Toward a new (or revived) effort to address inequality, Meares suggests that we think of constitutional criminal procedure not merely in terms of protections for individual defendants, but as a source of public legitimacy for the criminal law. Her “public-regarding approach” would identify disparities that undermine public perceptions of fairness and legitimacy, such as race-based juror selection or race-based defendant selection (selective prosecutions), and it would use constitutional levers to address those disparities. 

There is much to be gained by invoking antidiscrimination norms to reform American penal practices. Of course, we will still argue about what constitutes equality. As noted in Robin West’s essay in the 2020 volume, the legal conception of equality emphasizes treating like cases alike. In criminal justice (and elsewhere), there is considerable disagreement about how to classify “like cases.” For example, many would argue that racial disparities in American prison populations simply reflect patterns of offending. We impose like punishments on like offenders, the argument goes, and it’s unfortunate but true that racial minorities more often commit serious crimes. There are ways to undermine this claim, including Meares’s proposed attention to selective prosecutions. But even if we could agree on what equality means, and even as we pursue more egalitarian practices, it is not clear that equality is enough. I think observers of America’s sprawling penal system must ask whether inequality is the only constitutionally suspect feature of that system.

Assume, far-fetched as the notion may be, that our criminal laws and enforcement practices were purged of racial discrimination. Assume, also, that the expansive conception of the state’s penal power persisted. Legislatures still possessed the same broad discretion to criminalize conduct and to prescribe lengthy prison sentences that they have today; police officers still possessed the same broad discretion to search and seize persons in the investigative process; and prison officials still possessed the same broad discretion to use force within the prison to maintain order and discipline. In this imagined world, none of this discretion would be exercised in a racially discriminatory manner, but it would still be used to police and punish aggressively.  In this imagined world, the criminal justice practices currently directed disproportionately at non-whites would be experienced by everyone. Would the Constitution be satisfied?

The question is whether and how the Constitution imposes any limitations on the state’s use of force independent of requirements to use force in a nondiscriminatory manner. Do constitutional provisions such as the Fourth and Eighth Amendments restrict state power in ways not addressed by the Equal Protection Clause? Earlier this year I wrote about the use of the term “violence specialists” to describe agents of the state authorized to use physical force for public ends. The authors who use this term assume that every society has its violence specialists, but constitutional democracies are distinctive in that the violence specialists are subordinated to the rule of law. But which law? What I’d like to figure out—before 2020, I hope—is whether the Fourth and Eighth Amendments could provide more meaningful restrictions on state officials’ decisions to use force to police or punish.

Alice Ristroph is Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law. She will be appearing on Saturday's "Individual Rights" Panel with Rich Garnett (Notre Dame Law School, "Religion and Division," "Religious Institutions, Pluralism, and the Infrastructure of Religious Freedom"), Paul Horwitz (University of Alabama School of Law, "The First Amendment in 2020: An Institutional Perspective"), and Elizabeth Emens (Columbia Law School, "Disability's Force").

A New Use for Federalism? The Benefits and Constitutionality of Randomness in Federal Policymaking

Determining whether progressives should pursue change through the legislatures or the courts depends on our understanding both of what each of these institutions should do and of what these institutions are capable of doing... and they might be more versatile than we've come to assume. As Adam Chandler explains, social science methods point to some interesting uses Congress could make of federalism.


Where laws and regulations differ across state borders, researchers are provided with natural tests of the impacts of those policies. For instance, folks with statistical training can use geographical panel data techniques to discover the effect of a law that is enacted in multiples states at staggered times. Such studies have been done on the deterrent impact of capital punishment and the impact of right-to-carry laws on crime rates to give just two examples. These analyses, however, are necessarily retrospective and constrained by inference techniques. Extensive and careful effort must be used to control for, among other variables, the underlying reasons some states enacted the laws and others did not. More often than not, the resulting answer is that there is not enough evidence to draw a conclusion.

Consider, in contrast, a federal law designed to apply only to randomly selected states (or congressional districts, etc.). Controlled randomized experiments are often described as a “gold standard” in social science research. Adapted from clinical trials, they attempt to isolate the effects of some intervention — say, a new sex ed program — from the environment’s chaotic soup of natural influences and trends. That’s done by comparing a randomly constituted “experimental” group’s experience under the intervention to the natural, everyday changes that a second randomly constituted group experiences when left alone (this second group is the “control” group). These comparisons can help us measure the causal link between a policy and an outcome. And where do the groups come from? I suggest we randomly assign geographical regions, like states, into one or the other.

Perhaps the law could grant twenty random states the funding for a new sexual education curriculum. Then some years later, we could determine the new curriculum’s impact on teen pregnancy rates by comparing the twenty “experimental” states’ teen pregnancy rates to the rates in the thirty “control” states. In this way, such a law could provide one of the first nationwide experimental tests of a policy’s effectiveness. That is, perhaps our country’s federalist structure could allow us to use the states as policy laboratories. Could this be a new use for federalism?

It’s rarely the case that government policies are purposefully applied to some people and not others for the sake of comparison. Even more rarely are policies randomly applied to some and not others, but there are a few impressive examples. In the fall of 1994, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began an experimental housing mobility program in five urban centers based explicitly on random assignment. Families were randomly selected to receive assistance in moving to wealthier neighborhoods. As a result of the randomization, and to the surprise of many, this “Move to Opportunity” program was convincingly deemed to be much less successful than had been previously argued. The National Job Corps Study in 1993 convinced a skeptical Department of Labor that the Job Corps, a training program for disadvantaged 16- to 24-year-olds, is effective for increasing earnings, increasing educational attainment, and decreasing criminality. The random assignment at the core of the study essentially saved the Job Corps from elimination. More recently, the “No Child Left Behind” Act called for the use of “scientifically based research” as the basis for many education programs, indicating at least some appetite for randomization in a recent Congress, if only implicitly.

Inevitably in a geographically-randomized scheme like this, there are concerns about state sovereignty to consider. Of course, the federal government regularly discriminates among the states in funding and regulation, but it rarely does so randomly. In the criminal sentencing arena, there could be Eighth Amendment arguments about “unusual punishments” if people committing identical crimes are subjected to different sentencing guidelines because of their state of residence. And indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court’s primary basis for selecting its cases is to smooth out differential interpretations of federal law among Circuits.

There are also potential Equal Protection complaints about such a randomization scheme. Because geography does not constitute a subject class and as long as no fundamental rights are implicated, such “randomization of application” laws would probably only have to pass the “rational basis” bar. But does the randomization built into the laws make them by definition "arbitrary" or "capricious," undermining their rationality? Or alternatively, when would the laws be rationally related to a legitimate government purpose? Is determining the effectiveness of a certain policy or program, like a new sex ed curriculum, “legitimate”? Such an inquiry has the potential to put courts in a role analogous to research funding bodies, answering the question: Does the potential result of this trial intervention justify its cost in arbitrariness and unfairness (for courts) or in dollars (for funders)?

Setting aside constitutional and ethical objections for the moment, the value of such a nationwide randomized study is easy to see. Political candidates often campaign on the promise of eliminating programs that do not work and expanding those that do. If they truly seek to know which is which, more randomization in federal policymaking is a powerful solution.

What objections to this randomization scheme, constitutional or otherwise, can you see?  Drop a comment below. Or, if you email me at, I might highlight them in a future post.

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