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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Private Rights And Public Welfare

Home Building & Loan Assn. v. Blaisdell (1934):

Emergency does not create power. Emergency does not increase granted power or remove or diminish the restrictions imposed upon power granted or reserved. The Constitution was adopted in a period of grave emergency. Its grants of power to the federal government and its limitations of the power of the States were determined in the light of emergency, and they are not altered by emergency. What power was thus granted and what limitations were thus imposed are questions which have always been, and always will be, the subject of close examination under our constitutional system.

While emergency does not create power, emergency may furnish the occasion for the exercise of power. 'Although an emergency may not call into life a power which has never lived, nevertheless emergency may afford a reason for the exertion of a living power already enjoyed.' Wilson v. New...The constitutional question presented in the light of an emergency is whether the power possessed embraces the particular exercise of it in response to particular conditions.

Thus, the war power of the federal government is not created by the emergency of war, but it is a power given to meet that emergency. It is a power to wage war sucessfully, and thus it permits the harnessing of the entire energies of the people in a supreme co-operative effort to preserve the nation. But even the war power does not remove constitutional limitations safeguarding essential liberties. When the provisions of the Constitution, in grant or restriction, are specific, so particularized as not to admit of construction, no question is presented.

Thus, emergency would not permit a state to have more than two Senators in the Congress, or permit the election of President by a general popular vote without regard to the number of electors to which the States are respectively entitled, or permit the States to 'coin money' or to 'make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts.' But, where constitutional grants and limitations of power are set forth in general clauses, which afford a broad outline, the process of construction is essential to fill in the details.
...
It is manifest from this review of our decisions that there has been a growing appreciation of public needs and of the necessity of finding ground for a rational compromise between individual rights and public welfare...

It is no answer to say that this public need was not apprehended a century ago, or to insist that what the provision of the Constitution meant to the vision of that day it must mean to the vision of our time. If, by the statement that what the Constitution meant at the time of its adoption it means today, it is intended to say that the great clauses of the Constitution must be confined to the interpretation which the framers, with the conditions and outlook of their time, would have placed upon them, the statement carries its own refutation. It was to guard against such a narrow conception that Chief Justice Marshall uttered the memorable warning -- "We must never forget that it is a constitution we are expounding" (McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 407) -- "a constitution intended to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs." Id., p. 415. When we are dealing with the words of the Constitution, said this Court in Missouri v. Holland...

we must realize that they have called into life a being the development of which could not have been foreseen completely by the most gifted of its begetters. . . . The case before us must be considered in the light of our whole experience, and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago.

It's interesting that this decision has been cited at least thrice by Mr Tony Originalist Scalia that I could find: twice in dissent (1987, 2004), once in joining the Court's decision (1992).  Anyway, I'm sure he wouldn't read it my way regarding the Second Amendment, but it certainly looks to me that Congress could by all rights enact reasonable gun regulations under its powers to tax, regulate commerce and organize the militia, particularly if you see 30k firearm deaths a year (including mass murder of first graders) as a national emergency.  Part of government's constitutional job is to find that balance between private rights and public good.

ntodd

January 24, 2013 in Constitution, Schmonstitution | Permalink

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