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The Second Amendment vs. the Seventh Amendment: Procedural Rights and the Problem of Incorporation

Recognizing the difference between substantive and procedural rights helps enormously in understanding the battles over applying the first eight amendments of the U.S. Constitution to the states. Procedural rights have failed; not only have they not improved procedures, they have made things worse.


This is the fourth in a series of five posts based on my piece in the Northwestern Law Review comparing the Second and Seventh Amendment. The last post described the distinction between substantive and procedural rights, and the importance of that distinction. In this post, I look more closely at the problem of procedural rights and explain how they block important reforms.

The U.S. Supreme Court's struggles over whether to apply the first eight amendments of the Constitution to the states illustrate the problem with procedural rights. Applying one of these rights to the states is called incorporation. Early on, the federal courts shut down any notion of applying the first eight amendments to the states, as explained in Chief Justice John Marshall's 1833 opinion in Barron v. Mayor of Baltimore. After ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the question became more acute.

Understanding the difference between substantive and procedural rights helps enormously in explaining the otherwise seemingly chaotic decisions about incorporation. The U.S. Supreme Court first incorporated substantive rights. In 1897, the Court applied the Takings Clause against the states, and in 1925, the free speech and free press rights of the First Amendment. The process of incorporating substantive rights has continued, right up to the decision to incorporate the Second Amendment in McDonald v. City of Chicago in 2010. The Court understood these substantive provisions to be fundamental to a free society.

But the procedural provisions long resisted incorporation. Some justices, especially Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, and the younger John Harlan, understood that the states needed flexibility to develop effective systems of adjudication. In Palko v. Connecticut in 1937, for example, Justice Cardozo wrote for the Court refusing to incorporate the Double Jeopardy Clause against the states. Connecticut allowed the prosecution to appeal an acquittal. Although he did not use the terms, Justice Cardozo drew a significant distinction between substantive rights and most procedural rights. Describing "freedom of thought, and speech," he wrote, "Of that freedom one may say that it is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom." Therefore it was properly applied against the states. On the other hand, the rights to jury trial, grand jury indictment, the prohibition against double jeopardy, and the privilege against self-incrimination "are not of the very essence of a scheme of ordered liberty…. Few would be so narrow or provincial as to maintain that a fair and enlightened system of justice would be impossible without them." Justice Cardozo took an informed comparative view, one that allowed the states flexibility.

Likewise, in Wolf v. Colorado in 1949, Justice Frankfurter wrote the Court's opinion incorporating the substantive Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. He declared that right to be "basic to a free society." But he refused to incorporate the procedural exclusionary rule that the Court had developed for the federal courts. Justice Frankfurter explained that the methods of checking violations, the remedies for violations, and the means of enforcing those remedies "are all questions that are not to be so dogmatically answered as to preclude the varying solutions which spring from an allowable range of judgment." Again, flexibility was to be permitted to the states on matters of procedure.

And in Duncan v. Louisiana in 1968, Justice Harlan vigorously argued in dissent against incorporating the criminal jury right: "The States have always borne primary responsibility for operating the machinery of criminal justice within their borders, and adapting it to their particular circumstances." Interfering with state procedure through incorporation of federal constitutional provisions was a mistake: "neither history, nor sense, supports using the Fourteenth Amendment to put the States in a constitutional straitjacket with respect to their own development in the administration of criminal or civil law."

Unfortunately, Justice Harlan was fighting a losing battle. By 1968, the Court was launched on its procedural rights revolution. Justice White wrote for the Court in Duncan, incorporating the right to criminal jury trial against the states. He came up with a test for incorporation—whether a particular right is "necessary to an Anglo-American regime of ordered liberty"—which he buried in a footnote. The test was disingenuous because it did not explain the cases at all, though Justice White claimed that it did. Recently-created procedural rights unknown in England were said to meet this test. Such a test would be unworkable even if the Court were really trying to apply it. The "Anglo-American" regimes of "ordered liberty"—that is, procedural systems—were constantly changing, in important ways.

Most likely, what was really behind Duncan and many other 1960s cases was concern about the treatment of black defendants. (Duncan was a 19-year-old black man charged with assaulting a white boy.) The constitutional procedural-rights revolution was essentially part of the civil rights movement, and importantly linked to the Cold War. The United States could hardly claim to be a beacon of liberty for the free world if it treated black defendants badly.

But insisting on certain procedural rights turned out to be a terrible way to address that concern. The good intentions of the justices backfired, because they ignored the law of unintended consequences. Insisting on jury trial has resulted in the denial of any form of adjudication. Jury trials are long, expensive, and unpredictable. The state and federal systems have turned to plea bargaining instead, and applied ever-greater pressure on defendants to make that happen. Today, in the federal system, over 97% of criminal convictions are the result of a guilty plea, with no trial of any kind, jury or bench. Hundreds of thousands of black men—and others—have gone to prison through plea bargains, without any adjudication at all.

Specific procedural rights have failed. Not only have they not improved procedures for criminal defendants; they have made things worse.

Despite its criminal procedure binge, even now, the U.S. Supreme Court is reluctant to incorporate all procedural rights against the states. The Fifth Amendment right to grand jury indictment and the Seventh Amendment right to civil jury trial have not been incorporated. At least to some extent, the federal courts seem to have understood that procedure needs to be flexible, to adjust.

The experience of other countries shows the wisdom of flexibility concerning procedure.

Unlike substantive provisions, specific procedural provisions are not compatible with a wide variety of legal systems. Many are deeply incompatible. As an example, the independent jury has proved to be deeply incompatible with civil law, or inquisitorial, systems. By independent jury, I mean groups composed entirely of laypeople who deliberate and make adjudicatory decisions apart from professional judges. The independent jury is at odds with the goals of reasoned decision-making and full appeal that are so important to civil law systems. Inquisitorial systems have tried to adopt the independent jury for criminal cases, and it has failed. Germany, Italy, and France abandoned the independent jury in favor of a mixed panel of professional judges and lay jurors. Japan also uses a mixed panel. In theory, Spain and Russia today have independent criminal juries for serious cases. But in practice, judges and lawyers in those countries have greatly diminished jury trial, by prosecutors undercharging and courts using abbreviated procedures. The use of civil juries is so alien to civil law systems that almost none of them adopted it, or even tried to.

The civil jury has also proved to be incompatible with the current legal system of every other common law country. In England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the civil jury has been virtually eliminated. Those legal systems developed independent and reasonably competent judiciaries. Under the circumstances, the legal profession and members of the general public thought that the use of civil juries was an unnecessary expense and delay. (See Renée Lettow Lerner, The Surprising Views of Montesquieu and Tocqueville about Juries: Juries Empower Judges, 81 Louisiana Law Review 1, 49 (2020).) Loss of the civil jury doesn't seem to have done these countries any harm. One would be hard pressed to argue that their civil justice systems are worse than that of the United States. Alexander Hamilton was right. The trend in favor of limiting civil juries continued, to the point of elimination. Free from the constraint of constitutional rights to civil jury trial, other common law countries have been able to make appropriate reforms.

The next and final post shows the results of the weakness of procedural rights, and the relative resilience of substantive rights. It describes the terminal decay of the Seventh Amendment, and the revival of the Second Amendment.