The Enumerated Rights Reading of the Privileges or Immunities Clause: A Response to Randy E. Barnett and Evan D. Bernick's 'The Privileges or Immunities Clause, Abridged: A Critique of Kurt Lash on the Fourteenth Amendment'
106 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2019 Last revised: 21 Feb 2023
Date Written: March 12, 2019
In prior scholarship, I have argued that the historical evidence suggests that the public originally understood the Privileges or Immunities Clause as protecting enumerated constitutional rights, including (though not limited to) those rights listed in the first eight amendments, but not as protecting absolute enumerated rights such as the unenumerated right to contract protected in cases like Lochner v. New York. In a recent article, Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick canvass more than two decades of my historical work on the Fourteenth Amendment and claim that I have failed to present a persuasive argument in favor of what they call the “Enumerated Rights Only” reading of the Privileges or Immunities Clause. In particular, they argue that (1) antebellum evidence suggests that the term “privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States” was understood to include unenumerated rights, (2) the man who drafted the Privileges or Immunities Clause, John Bingham, described the clause as protecting unenumerated absolute rights, (3) the debates of the Thirty-Ninth Congress suggest that most members would have understood the Privileges or Immunities Clause as transforming the relative rights of Article IV, Section 2 (the Comity Clause) into absolute unenumerated rights, (4) Reconstruction-era references to the “Bill of Rights” as representing the rights of national citizenship are unreliable due to that fact that there was no fixed meaning to the term at that time and (5) because my account fails to explain how the Privileges or Immunities Clause authorized the 1866 Civil Rights Act, it cannot stand as a persuasive reading of the Clause.
In this article, I respond to all of these arguments and synthesize the evidence I have gathered over the years which I believe supports the Enumerated Rights reading of the Privileges or Immunities Clause. In brief: The only antebellum voices describing the rights of national citizenship as including unenumerated absolute rights were proponents of slavery who insisted they had an unenumerated “right” to own slaves. The abolitionist voices most likely to influence Reconstruction Republicans uniformly described the rights of national citizenship as enumerated constitutional rights. The most significant of these Republicans, John Bingham, always described the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States as involving constitutionally enumerated rights, and never as unenumerated absolute rights. Bingham’s colleagues in the Thirty-Ninth Congress were well-informed about, and shared a consensus view of, Article IV, Section 2 and cases like Corfield v. Coryell as protecting nothing more than the relative rights of equal treatment in regard to a limited set of “fundamental” rights. Thus, when Jacob Howard named Corfield and the enumerated rights of Article IV as “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” he and his audience understood the limited relative nature of those rights. On the other hand, when members like Bingham and Howard referred to the federal Bill of Rights as privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, listeners in and outside of Congress would have understood this to be a reference to enumerated constitutional rights. In particular, this is how the public would have understood Bingham’s insistence that he sought to enforce the Bill of Rights against the states and nothing more. Finally, there is no need to force a reading onto the Privileges or Immunities Clause that authorizes the Civil Rights Act. As John Bingham explained, the Civil Rights Act represented an effort to enforce the equal right not to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law—rights covered by the final two clauses of Section One.
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