Justices Split on Historical Analysis in Two of the Term’s Biggest Cases
Posted Jul 14, 2008 9:17 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss
In two of the Supreme Court’s most important cases this year, the justices agreed that history and the original meaning of the Constitution were critical in interpreting constitutional guarantees.
But the justices disagreed on how to interpret the history, the Los Angeles Times reports. The cases gave Guantanamo detainees a right to petition for habeas in federal courts and said the Second Amendment protected an individual right to own handguns at home.
In the habeas case, Boumediene v. Bush, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy cited early English cases in which Spanish sailors and African slaves sought freedom through court petitions. He said the cases suggest the right of habeas corpus was not limited to English subjects when it became part of the U.S. Constitution. Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed in his dissent, saying the right of habeas corpus was limited to sovereign English territory.
Scalia wrote the majority opinion in the Second Amendment case, District of Columbia v. Heller. He said the English Bill of Rights of 1689 provided for a right to bear arms after the Stuart kings of England retained power by confiscating weapons. He also noted that some state constitutions of the time spoke of a right "to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state."
But Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent that Bill of Rights author James Madison rejected a broader right to bear arms and instead focused on a “well-regulated militia.”