Archive | Constitutional History

The Ten Best Supreme Court Decisions

It’s easy to make lists of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time, and libertarians are constantly criticizing the Court for not doing enough to protect constitutional liberties. But now, libertarian lawprof Brad Smith asks for a list of the ten best Supreme Court decisions from a libertarian point of view.

As I see it, the cases on the list should 1) uphold important principles, and 2) actually have had a substantial real-world impact by preventing large-scale injustices. They should also, of course, be legally correct. Criterion No. 1 rules out a large number of Supreme Court decisions that protect only relatively minor freedoms (for instance those limiting minor instances of government endorsement of religion). Criterion No. 2 rules out many cases where the Court struck down liberty-infringing laws that were already on their way out and rarely enforced. For example, Lawrence v. Texas invalidated anti-sodomy laws, a truly barbaric form of legislation that egregiously violated the liberty of gays (and occasionally a few heterosexuals). But by 2003, when Lawrence was decided, only a few states still had anti-sodomy laws and even they almost never enforced them. For this reason, Lawrence had only a modest real-world impact. Had it been decided in 1903 or 1953, it might have had a much greater effect, though it is almost impossible to imagine the Court taking such a step at those times.

Given my criteria, the Peonage Cases of the early 1900s surely rank high, as they enabled numerous southern blacks to escape a system of forced labor and did so at a time when Jim Crow racism was at its height, and the political branches of government showed little willingness to protect black rights. Also worthy is Buchanan v. Warley (1917), which struck down racially based zoning, and helped prevent US [...]

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Justice Brandeis

The New York Times has published two reviews of Mel Urofsky’s new biography of Louis Brandeis.  I haven’t seen the book yet, but Mel had sent me the page proofs of several chapters earlier this year, and they were great.

Whiles the parts of the book I read struck me as admiring but with appropriate cautionary notes, Brandeis hagiography otherwise appears alive and well.  In his review of the book,  Alan Dershowitz writes that “the First Amendment’s right of free expression, the Fourth Amendment’s right to privacy and the due process clause’s focus on personal liberty (rather than property) all owe their current vitality to the creative genius of Justice Brandeis.”

With some reservations (Brandeis’s view of the First Amendment was much more utilitarian, in the sense of supporting free speech because he thought it would lead to further Progressive reform, than modern, more libertarian-oriented doctrine), I’ll concede the First Amendment point.

But Brandeis was no great hero of the Fourth Amendment. Brandeis, of course, authored a famous dissent in the 5-4 decision in Olmstead v.  United States,  holding that the fourth amendment prohibits warrantless wiretapping.  But Brandeis was not a consistent advocate of a broad Fourth Amendment.  For example, in Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925), the Supreme Court upheld a warrantless search of a car on suspicion of transporting alcohol.  The majority, including Justice Brandeis, concluded that automobiles are distinct from private dwellings for Fourth Amendment purposes.  Justice McReynolds, joined by Justice Sutherland, dissented.  More generally, the most consistent advocates of Fourth Amendment protections against the excesses of Prohibition enforcement came from several of the “conservative” Justices, especially Justice Pierce Butler, with Brandeis consistently voting in favor of the government.

When the liberal Warren Court chose to strictly enforce the Fourth Amendment, it naturally [...]

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