Why Judicial Recognition of a Constitutional Right Doesn't Necessarily Mean that the Right Will Actually Be Protected:

Robert Levy, co-counsel for the gun owners in the Heller Second Amendment case, makes an excellent point in his op ed on the case today. Even if the Court recognizes the existence of an individual constitutional right to bear arms, that doesn't necessarily mean that the right will get any effective protection. The Court might recognize the existence of the right, but defer to the government in defining its scope, thereby effectively leaving the right to the tender mercies of the very officials whom constitutional rights are intended to protect against:

[C]an Washington's ban on all functional firearms coexist with a Second Amendment that secures an individual right? That question might hinge on how rigorously the court reviews the constitutionality of Second Amendment restrictions. If the court believes the Second Amendment meaningfully constrains government, Washington's ban is impermissible....

If the district's outright ban on all handguns, in all homes, at all times, for all purposes, is determined by the court to pass muster, it will mean that the Supreme Court intends to rubberstamp just about any regulation that a legislature can dream up - no matter whether the government has offered any justification whatsoever, much less a justification that would survive strict scrutiny. That would, in effect, excise the Second Amendment from the Constitution. A right that cannot be enforced is no right at all.

Recognition of a "right that cannot be enforced" is exactly what the Court has often done in the field of property rights. As I noted in my last post, the Court - especially in recent years - has often held that individuals are entitled to protection for property rights under the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause and other constitutional provisions. However, they have heavily deferred to the government in defining the scope of those rights, often effectively negating them as meaningful protections for individuals targeted by the state. For example, the Court has allowed government nearly unlimited authority to define the scope of what constitutes a "public use" justify condemnation of private property under the Fifth Amendment. Entrusting the political branches of government with the authority to define the scope of a constitutional right is much like giving wolves the power to determine how much access they will have to the chicken coop. The chickens - especially those who lack political influence over the wolfpack - are unlikely to last very long.

Unlike some of my co-conspirators I don't have the expertise to opine on the question of how far a constitutional right to bear arms should extend. However, experience in other areas of constitutional law suggests that any victory for individual rights will be a hollow one if the Court defers to the government in determining how broad the right should be.

There is perhaps, some symbolic value in having the Court recognize the existence of a right, even if it doesn't give the right any real protection. But that symbolic value must be weighed against the danger that the public will assume that the judiciary is actually enforcing the right even when it isn't. Given the rational ignorance of most voters, there is a real danger that the public will assume that a judicial decision recognizing the existence of a right without giving it any real protection has "solved" the problem of government overreaching in this area.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH: I suppose I should mention that I am an unpaid adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, where Levy is a senior fellow, and that he has made generous financial contributions to George Mason Law School (my employer and his alma mater). I don't think any of this actually affects my evaluation of his arguments. But I note it here for the benefit of the blogging ethics mavens out there.

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