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Oh, Those Hypocritical Conservative Justices.

It's always appealing to accuse the other side of hypocrisy or inconsistency with its own stated beliefs. But to do this, one actually needs to demonstrate an inconsistency.
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Here they talk about "strict construction, federalism, and judicial modesty." And now we see that the Heller Second Amendment argument "is about" "the abandonment of every principle of strict construction, federalism, and judicial modesty in which the Roberts Court ever purported to believe." "After all these years of deep conservative suspicion of turning over policy matters to the courts, the Roberts Court has fallen in love with a new constitutional right." That's what Dahlia Lithwick (Slate) reports.

Here's the trouble: To some people, the Second Amendment is not a new constitutional right. It's an old constitutional right, right there in the text. To say "that 'when a fundamental right is at stake, there is a role for judicial review,'" as Lithwick quotes Heller's lawyer saying, is not "in the spirit of Roe v. Wade." It's in the spirit of every case (say, every First and Fourth Amendment case) that is applying a constitutional right that's right there in the constitutional text.

Now of course some argue that the Second Amendment's text, properly interpreted, does not secure an individual right. I disagree with this, and so apparently do the conservative Justices, but there's obviously such an argument to be made. But Lithwick doesn't make it.

Lithwick says the conservatives are "abandon[ing] ... strict construction." But to actually make this bare assertion into an argument, she has to do two things. First, Lithwick must show that the conservative Supreme Court Justices have actually espoused "strict construction." Justice Scalia, for instance, has expressly rejected it: "Textualism should not be confused with so-called strict constructionism, a degraded form of textualism that brings the whole philosophy into disrepute. I am not a strict constructionist, and no one ought to be — though better that, I suppose, than a nontextualist. A text should not be construed strictly, and it should not be construed leniently; it should be constructed reasonably, to contain all that it fairly means ...." Second, Lithwick must show that an individual rights view of the Second Amendment is inconsistent with strict construction (or, better yet, with whatever the conservative Justices have actually endorsed). Her account doesn't even try.

Likewise as to "judicial modesty." (David Bernstein has covered federalism very well in an earlier post.) Judicial modesty can mean many things; for instance, it could mean not reaching out beyond the facts of a particular case in order to set forth broad principles for the future. On this view, striking down the handgun ban on individual-rights grounds but reserving for later other questions (such as the proper standard of review for narrower regulations, the proper rules for other weapons, and so on) would be quite modest.

Or it could mean reading the provision in a way that doesn't unnecessarily interfere with the political branches, which sounds like what Lithwick is referring to. ("[Dellinger] reminds Kennedy that he of all people would hate a 'national government that sets a single standard for rural and urban areas, for East and West, North and South,' and that the right to own guns causes 'disputes among experts' such that the courts should hang back and allow the local legislatures to thrash it out.")

But again this assumes the conclusion about what the text means. After all, the conservative Justices agree that, for instance, the First and Fourth Amendments "set a single standard for rural and urban areas, for East and West, North and South" and constrain "local legislatures." They may disagree about the particular standard that should be chosen (and in very rare circumstances, such as obscenity law, they may endorse slightly different standards for different areas). Yet they agree that "judicial modesty" means not unnecessarily interfering with the political branches, and they agree that it is necessary to enforce those constitutional constraints that the constitutional text actually imposes.

There are a few scholars whose view of "judicial modesty" is that judicial review should be largely or entirely abandoned. (Lino Graglia at the University of Texas is one.) But none of the conservative Justices on the Court have ever endorsed this view.

Finally, consider one more quote: "When Gura says that the court should be taking normative questions out of the hands of legislature," Lithwick writes, "the transition to Upside-Down World is complete. This question is too complicated for anything but the policy judgments of the court? It's as if he's channeling the whole Warren Court at once." The conservative Justices have many disagreements with the Warren Court, on matters such as Miranda or (reaching into the early Burger Court) Roe v. Wade. But all of them have agreed that enforcing those rights that are actually constitutionally protected isn't "channeling the whole Warren Court" but rather channeling Chief Justice Marshall's position in Marbury v. Madison and in the other constitutional cases that went after it.

It's always appealing to accuse the other side of hypocrisy or inconsistency with its own stated beliefs — after all, one can then set aside the hard work of actually showing why their beliefs are wrong, and instead point out that their positions are mistaken even under their own stated principles. But to do this, one actually needs to demonstrate an inconsistency, with the other side's actual beliefs and not with the beliefs that one is ascribing to them for rhetorical purposes.