The Rao Roe Row

Neomi Rao, nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, has fallen victim to an old fissure–conservative and libertarian disagreement over unenumerated rights. At the hint that she believes that rights exist outside the express text of the Constitution, conservatives have pounced, concerned that Rao will betray conservatives on abortion issues. On both political and legal dimensions, this concern is silly.

As a general matter, it’s beyond clear that Rao is qualified. Conservatives shouldn’t cripple a great candidate over a minor issue. The Supreme Court has many times confirmed that unenumerated rights exist. Rao is bound by those precedents, including Roe, and whether she agrees with those precedents or not is immaterial to the job she’s nominated to do. The chance that Rao will even have a chance to expand the existing list of recognized unenumerated rights is exceedingly low. It just doesn’t come up that often, and the courts already have tests for assessing whether a right should be recognized.

But perhaps more importantly, non-enumerated rights don’t lean toward one side of the ideological spectrum or the other. The Supreme Court of the early twentieth century recognized, for instance, liberty of contract as a constitutionally protected right–though unenumerated. Progressive jurists bent on defending Roosevelt’s New Deal did so in part by opposing the enforcement of unenumerated rights. Unenumerated rights also include other “conservative” causes such as the right to earn a living. And, of course, unenumerated rights have also favored “liberal” values such as a broad right to privacy. In short, it is unclear why Rao’s alleged support for the enforcement of unenumerated rights should enter into the partisan calculus.

And then there’s the simple fact that unenumerated rights do in fact exist and deserve constitutional protection. The history and passage of the Ninth Amendment, which says enumeration of rights shouldn’t detract from those retained by the people, make this clear. The founding generation didn’t see rights as reserved to a fixed set of especially important activities. In fact, many feared that the enumeration of certain rights would imply that the unenumerated ones shouldn’t be recognized. That fear has turned to be prescient, despite the inclusion of the Ninth Amendment, which was written to make clear that the enumerated rights shouldn’t be seen as implying that unenumerated rights should go unprotected.

In short, not only would Rao be right to recognize such rights–though the scope of those rights is always a matter of intense debate–she has to recognize them under binding law, and her thoughts on the matter are unlikely to make much difference to her job. If she gets nominated to the Supreme Court later down the road, the concern may have more relevance. For now, just get her confirmed.

Please keep it civil

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