Situating 'Groups' in Constitutional Argument: Interrogating Judicial Arguments on Economic Rights, Gender Equality, and Gay Equality
50 Pages Posted: 31 May 2015 Last revised: 16 Mar 2016
Date Written: May 26, 2015
The New Deal transformation in Commerce Clause and Due Process jurisprudence marked, among other things, a shift in judicial attention from groups defined by economic relationships to groups defined by social status. Hence, one might plausibly see judicial activism in defense of freedom of contract during the Lochner era subsequently giving way, in part, to the judicial protection of racial minorities, women, and gay persons in the decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
In this paper, I attempt to illuminate this shift in judicial attention by examining the Supreme Court's rhetoric surrounding groups in the context of the Lochner era cases on wages and hours regulations and the post-Brown v. Board of Education era cases on gender and gay equality. I situate my inquiry in the context of broader themes in American political thought, with particular attention to the core concepts and principles of American liberalism. In examining the recurrent modes of argument surrounding groups in these Supreme Court cases, I discuss how the Court's concept of groups — and how its views of American society more broadly — has varied in different constitutional doctrinal contexts.
My examination of these cases yields two key findings. The first finding speaks to a similarity across these contexts of Supreme Court jurisprudence: when confronted by reforms calling for special or different legal treatment of specific groups, both pro-reform and anti-reform Supreme Court justices in these three doctrinal contexts put forth arguments about group-sameness and group-difference. That is, group-sameness and group-difference arguments were deployed by Justices on both sides of the various legal controversies in these doctrinal areas. The second finding speaks to a difference between these doctrinal contexts: while arguments in defense of special legal treatment for groups in the Lochner era cases on wages and hours regulations were linked to larger, broader, more systemic goals, no such sensibility informs the judicial protection of groups in the post-Brown cases on gender and gay equality. Rather, in more recent years, the judicial defense of groups largely proceeds from a judicial concern for only the groups in question. Thus, we see in the more contemporary cases examples of judicial arguments about “societal segmentation” — a significant mode of legal and political argument that, I assert, has appeared episodically throughout American history. In the final Part, I set forth a more general definition of societal segmentation arguments, and I discuss how notions of segmentation may be situated in relation to the principles of American liberalism.
Keywords: Carolene Products Footnote Four, Social Groups, American Liberalism, American Political Traditions, Economic Rights, Gender Equality, Gay Equality, Segmentation
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