March 9, 2020

What If the Court Saw Other Rights as Generously as Gun Rights?

[Cross-posted from The Atlantic]

By Aaron Tang

This is an essay about two words no one wants to see in the same story: guns and schools. But this isn’t about school shootings. This is instead about two starkly different social-activist groups: gun-rights proponents and educational-equity advocates. It’s about their steadfast pursuit of wildly divergent civil rights. It’s about a surprising similarity in their legal strategies. And more than anything, it’s a story about law and ideology, and the difficulty of deciding the former without the influence of the latter.  

Both groups have long courted the Supreme Court’s intervention. Spearheaded by new leadership at the NRA in the late 1970s, gun-rights activists engaged for decades in an effort to persuade the Supreme Court to recognize an individual Second Amendment right to bear arms for self-defense at home. The Court ultimately enshrined that right 12 years ago in D.C. v. Heller, displacing a long-standing consensus to the contrary. In the years after Heller, however, conservatives such as Justice Clarence Thomas frequently complained that the Court had ignored this fledgling right by refusing to expand its reach beyond the facts of Heller itself, effectively resigning the right to “second-class” status.

Second-class no more. In New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York, a major case argued in December, the Court appears poised to expand the Second Amendment to protect gun possession outside the home as well. Just how far is an open question, though gun-rights groups have focused for now on enshrining a right to transport guns to shooting ranges and second homes.

For educational-equity advocates, the Court’s involvement has not been as helpful. The Court declared in 1973 that the Constitution guarantees no right to an education. That ruling paved the way for today’s radically unequal public-school spending patterns—patterns that reinforce and exacerbate existing socioeconomic and racial inequalities.

Like the gun activists, educational-equality proponents have not given up their vision of a constitutional solution. Equity advocates’ present litigation strategy is exemplified by a case known as Gary B v. Whitmer, which is currently pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The complaint in the case is painful to read: Many classes in Detroit public schools are taught by unqualified substitutes, and many classrooms use textbooks that are decades old, or lack them altogether. School buildings are in complete disrepair; the temperature had risen to 110 degrees in one building because of the lack of air conditioning, and students have to wear jackets and hats inside a number of schools during the winter months because of the lack of heat.

These schools, the plaintiffs argue, have deprived Detroit schoolchildren of their basic right to literacy, in violation of the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. A district judge rejected the plaintiffs’ theory in 2018, but a panel of judges on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals seemed more receptive during oral argument in October. And regardless of the outcome of the case in the Sixth Circuit, the Supreme Court will likely have the final say, perhaps as early as in 2021.

At first glance, the gun-rights movement and the pursuit of educational equity seem to have little in common. But they in fact share an approach: Both promote arguments that rely on what are called “implied” or “unenumerated” constitutional rights.

Start with the gun activists’ position in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association. One of their primary objectives is to vindicate a constitutional right to transport their firearms to any shooting range of their choosing. (New York City forbade certain gun owners with premises licenses from bringing their guns to shooting ranges outside city limits—at least, that is, before the city and state both amended the law to permit such travel. The gun-owning plaintiffs wanted to shoot at ranges in New Jersey.)

The argument for a constitutional right to train at any shooting range is far from obvious. The Second Amendment speaks of a right to “keep” and “bear” arms, but says nothing about a right to train or practice. And indeed, cities and states at the founding often restricted gun owners to practicing only at prescribed locations.

So what do the gun activists argue? It’s worth reproducing this argument from their brief verbatim, with emphasis added to a single word: “The right to possess firearms for protection implies a corresponding right to acquire and maintain proficiency in their use … after all, the core right to keep and bear arms for self-defense wouldn’t mean much without the training and practice that make it effective.” The Second Amendment may say nothing about the right to practice at a shooting range of one’s choosing, in other words, but that right ought to be recognized implicitly because it is important for an express constitutional right to have full meaning.

Now consider the argument advanced by advocates of a constitutional right to basic literacy. Like gun activists and their right to firearms training, educational-equity advocates recognize that the Constitution says nothing explicit about education. But surely a guarantee of basic literacy skills must be implicit in the document in order for its express rights to have meaning. As the Gary Bcomplaint puts it, “without access to basic literacy skills, citizens cannot engage in knowledgeable and informed voting,” cannot exercise “their right to engage in political speech” under the First Amendment, and cannot enjoy their “constitutionally protected access to the judicial system … including the retention of an attorney and the receipt of notice sufficient to satisfy due process.”

The identical logical structure that underpins these otherwise distinctive arguments presents a puzzle for the Supreme Court. How can it in good faith accept a theory of implied constitutional rights for gun owners only to reject the same argument for schoolchildren? Yet the consensus among close followers is that this is the most likely outcome: Gun-rights activists believe the Court is primed to deliver them a victory in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, while educational-equity advocates recognize that the Court’s conservative majority is unlikely to rule in their favor.

Should it come to pass, a pro-gun, anti-schoolchildren result would reveal some bleak lessons about the Supreme Court and the influence of political ideology on its justices. When logic cannot support the Court’s divergent decisions, the public is left with the impression that the Court is just engaged in politics by another name—that the “Supreme Court is not a court and its justices are not judges.” This has happened before: The Rehnquist Court famously took a cramped view of Congress’s power to regulate violence against women and (ironically enough) gun possession in school zones under the commerce clause. But when faced with a similar attack against Congress’s power to criminalize homegrown-marijuana production and use, the Court did a sudden about-face, broadly defending congressional authority.  

Perhaps, then, a neutral theory of implied rights—one founded on first principles instead of politics—ought to shape constitutional law. Under such a theory, starting with shared values seems fitting. To that end, consider Chief Justice John Marshall’s famous declaration two centuries ago that “we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding.” A constitution’s very “nature,” Chief Justice Marshall explained, “requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which compose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves.”  

Put another way, implied rights are a necessary consequence of the shared effort to live in a democracy bound by a timeless and embracing constitutional document. The Constitution is short for a reason: It lets people work out their problems over time, as they develop. Thus, many of America’s proudest judicial moments champion implied rights: the right to vote in state elections, the right to appeal a criminal conviction, and even the right to procreate. Like the right to vote, in particular, the right to education is “preservative of other basic civil and political rights,” and should be recognized for the same reason. And if one agrees with Heller’s individual, self-defense interpretation of the Second Amendment right—an assumption that, to be sure, is subject to powerful counterarguments—then an individual right to train with firearms would be entitled to the same logical underpinning.

This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.