The story’s not quite that simple, as the disagreement between plurality and dissent in this week’s Kerry v. Din shows. But as a teaching tool, it can be useful to compare and contrast the decision to enumerate rights in the constitution with the decision to enumerate rights in court opinions. In a selection of cases, the Supreme Court has sought to provide sample enumerations of unenumerated rights as a way of indicating the scope of American freedom. These "liberty lists" have arisen most prominently in the 20th and 21st centuries with regard to the Due Process Clause, but decisions from before the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment offered other lists that were claimed to flow from the Privileges And Immunities Clause of Art. IV and the structural meaning of citizenship itself.
Issues worth studying when comparing these various liberty lists are how their contents have (or have not) changed over time; when they are used as opposed to when they are not; and whether the amount of detail in the list correlates to a win for the individual claiming an unenumerated liberty. The punch line at the end of a capacious list is most often “We protect a huge range of liberties, including yours” (as in Meyer v. Nebraska) but it can also be “We protect a huge range of liberties, but not yours” (as in Board of Regents v. Roth).
The most famous early liberty list is Corfield v. Coryell, 6 F. Cas. 546, 552 (C.C.E.D. Pa. 1823), a trial court opinion rendered by Justice Bushrod Washington while riding circuit. The question was whether New Jersey had violated Art. IV, section 2 by wrongly failing to extend to a citizen of another state a “privilege and immunity” available to New Jersey citizens.
The inquiry is, what are the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states? We feel no hesitation in confining these expressions to those privileges and immunities which are, in their nature, fundamental; which belong, of right, to the citizens of all free governments; and which have, at all times, been enjoyed by the citizens of the several states which compose this Union, from the time of their becoming free, independent, and sovereign. What these fundamental principles are, it would perhaps be more tedious than difficult to enumerate. They may, however, be all comprehended under the following general heads: Protection by the government; the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right to acquire and possess property of every kind, and to pursue and obtain happiness and safety; subject nevertheless to such restraints as the government may justly prescribe for the general good of the whole. The right of a citizen of one state to pass through, or to reside in any other state, for purposes of trade, agriculture, professional pursuits, or otherwise; to claim the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus; to institute and maintain actions of any kind in the courts of the state; to take, hold and dispose of property, either real or personal; and an exemption from higher taxes or impositions than are paid by the other citizens of the state; may be mentioned as some of the particular privileges and immunities of citizens, which are clearly embraced by the general description of privileges deemed to be fundamental: to which may be added, the elective franchise, as regulated and established by the laws or constitution of the state in which it is to be exercised.The majority opinion in The Slaughterhouse Cases (1872) applauded Corfield’s list, saying that the rights protected by the Art. IV Privileges And Immunities Clause embrace “nearly every civil right for the establishment and protection of which organized government is instituted.” The punch line is that the right sought in Corfield—to engage in oyster farming in state waters on equal terms with a state resident—was not fundamental, the breadth of the Corfield list notwithstanding.
Crandall v. Nevada, 73 U.S. 35 (1867), involved a state law imposing a tax on exit from the state, a law found unconstitutional because it interfered with the ability of US citizens to travel to and access federal facilities. Crandall was decided before the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified; it reached its conclusion based on general principles that Slaughterhouse called “implied guarantees of the Constitution.” Just by being a US citizen, one automatically enjoyed the Crandall rights:
[The citizen] has the right to come to the seat of government to assert any claim he may have upon that government, to transact any business he may have with it, to seek its protection, to share its offices, to engage in administering its functions. He has the right of free access to its seaports, through which all operations of foreign commerce are conducted, to the subtreasuries, land offices, and courts of justice in the several States, and this right is in its nature independent of the will of any State over whose soil he must pass in the exercise of it.Once attention shifted to the Due Process Clause as the textual home for most of the unenumerated rights, two frequently-quoted lists appeared in majority opinions. Allgeyer v. Louisiana, 165 U.S. 578 (1897), generally viewed as the first SCOTUS case to invalidate a state statute for violating an unenumerated right under a substantive due process theory, described it this way:
The “liberty” mentioned in that [Fourteenth] amendment means, not only the right of the citizen to be free from the mere physical restraint of his person, as by incarceration, but the term is deemed to embrace the right of the citizen to be free in the enjoyment of all his faculties; to be free to use them in all lawful ways; to live and work where he will; to earn his livelihood by any lawful calling; to pursue any livelihood or avocation; and for that purpose to enter into all contracts which may be proper, necessary, and essential to his carrying out to a successful conclusion the purposes above mentioned.Described this way, the right reached the ability to purchase life insurance from an out-of-state company. A reformulation of the list, this time emphasizing non-economic rights, appeared in Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923):
While this court has not attempted to define with exactness the liberty thus guaranteed [by the Due Process Clause], the term has received much consideration and some of the included things have been definitely stated. Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.The right to send one’s children to a private school to learn the German language fit comfortably in this list.
An interesting contrast to the Allgeyer and Meyer liberty lists is the formula from Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), the companion to Brown v. Board of Education that used reverse incorporation to find that the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause should be binding on the federal government. Here, the Court offered no list (only a principle), and then concluded that the asserted right fit within that principle. It is not widely remembered today, but Bolling may offer the most expansive (or is it the most circular?) definition of liberty of any SCOTUS opinion.
Although the Court has not assumed to define “liberty” with any great precision, that term is not confined to mere freedom from bodily restraint. Liberty under law extends to the full range of conduct which the individual is free to pursue, and it cannot be restricted except for a proper governmental objective. Segregation in public education is not reasonably related to any proper governmental objective, and thus it imposes on Negro children of the District of Columbia a burden that constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of their liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause.So who might lose under a modern application of the liberty lists? For one, the untenured college professor in Board of Regents v. Roth. After quoting the Meyer list, and citing Bolling for the proposition that “in a Constitution for a free people” the meaning of liberty “must be broad indeed,” the court proceeded to find that no liberty was implicated when the professor’s one-year contract was not renewed. For another, the alien children held in immigration detention centers in Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292 (1993). They might have thought they did not need to rely on a liberty list, given the universal agreement that “freedom from bodily restraint” was protected. The majority concluded that this right was not implicated by the facts of the case—only “the alleged right of a child who has no available parent, close relative, or legal guardian, and for whom the government is responsible, to be placed in the custody of a willing-and-able private custodian rather than of a government-operated or government-selected child-care institution.” Turns out that one isn’t on the list.
And now, in Kerry v. Din, a plurality would hold that a US citizen with a foreign spouse has no liberty interest in that spouse receiving a visa to enter the country (not even enough of a liberty interest to trigger procedural due process). Justice Scalia’s opinion for a three-justice plurality offers its own liberty list that is limited to what Lord Coke perceived within the Magna Carta. The opinion goes on to expressly rejects the entire American judicial tradition of liberty lists:
To be sure, this Court has at times indulged a propensity for grandiloquence when reviewing the sweep of implied rights, describing them so broadly that they would include not only the interests Din asserts but many others as well. For example: "Without doubt, [the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause] denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, [and] to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience" Meyer v. Nebraska (1923). But this Court is not bound by dicta, especially dicta that have been repudiated by the holdings of our subsequent cases.