73 Civil Liberties: How are the Bill of Rights interpreted?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how the Ninth and Tenth Amendments reflect on our other rights
  • Identify the two senses of “right to privacy” embodied in the Constitution
  • Explain the controversy over privacy when applied to abortion and same-sex relationships

As this chapter has suggested, the provisions of the Bill of Rights have been interpreted and reinterpreted repeatedly over the past two centuries.

In this section, we consider the final two amendments of the Bill of Rights and the way they affect our understanding of the Constitution as a whole. Rather than protecting specific rights and liberties, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments indicate how to interpret the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and lay out the residual powers of the state governments. We also examine privacy rights, an area the Bill of Rights does not address directly; instead, the emergence of defined privacy rights demonstrates how the Ninth and Tenth Amendments have been applied to expand the scope of rights protected by the Constitution.

The Ninth Amendment

We noted previously that James Madison and other framers were aware they might endanger some rights if they listed some in the Constitution and omitted others. To ensure that constitutional interpreters would recognize that the listing of freedoms and rights in the Bill of Rights was not exhaustive, the Ninth Amendment states:

“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

These rights “retained by the people” include the common-law and natural rights inherited from the laws, traditions, and past court decisions of England. To this day, we regularly exercise and take for granted rights that are not written down, like the right to marry, the right to seek opportunities for employment and education, and the right to have children and raise a family. Supreme Court justices over the years have interpreted the Ninth Amendment differently; some have argued it was intended to extend the rights protected by the Constitution to those natural and common-law rights, while others have argued it does not prohibit states from changing their constitutions and laws to modify or limit those rights as they see fit.

Critics of a broad interpretation assert the Constitution provides ways to protect newly formalized rights through the amendment process. For example, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the right to vote was gradually expanded by constitutional amendments (the Fifteenth and Nineteenth) even though publicly controversial. However, supporters of a broad interpretation assert the rights of the people—particularly of political or demographic minorities—should not be subject to the whims of popular majorities. A general right to privacy is one the courts have said may be at least partially based on the Ninth Amendment.

The Tenth Amendment

The Tenth Amendment states:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Unlike other Bill of Rights provisions, this focuses on power rather than rights. The courts have generally read the Tenth Amendment as merely stating, as Chief Justice Harlan Stone put it, a “truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered.”[1]

In other words, rather than limiting the power of the federal government in any meaningful way, it simply restates what is made obvious elsewhere in the Constitution: the federal government has both enumerated and implied powers, but where the federal government does not (or chooses not to) exercise power, the states may do so.

At times, politicians and state governments have argued that this allows states to engage in interposition or nullification by blocking federal laws and actions they deem to exceed the constitutional powers of the national government. The courts have rarely agreed with these views, except when the federal government appears to directly require state and local officials to do something. For example, in 1997 the Supreme Court struck down part of a federal law requiring state and local law enforcement to conduct background checks for prospective gun purchasers. In 2012 the court ruled the government could not compel states to expand the joint state-federal Medicaid program by taking away all their existing Medicaid funding if they refused.[2]

The Tenth Amendment also allows states to guarantee rights and liberties more fully or extensively than the federal government does, or to include additional rights. For example, many state constitutions guarantee the right to a free public education. Several states give victims of crimes certain rights. Eighteen states include the right to hunt game and/or fish.[3]

Some state constitutions explicitly guarantee equal rights for men and women. Some states permitted women to vote before the Nineteenth Amendment of 1920, and people aged 18–20 could vote in a few states before the Twenty-Sixth Amendment of 1971. Several states also explicitly recognize a right to privacy. State courts sometimes interpret state constitutional provisions to include broader protections for basic liberties than their federal counterparts. For example, although in general people do not have the right to free speech and assembly on private property without the owners permission, California’s constitutional protection of freedom of expression was extended to portions of some privately owned shopping centers by the state’s supreme court.[4]

These state protections do not extend the other way, however. If the federal government passes a law or adopts a constitutional amendment that restricts rights or liberties, or a Supreme Court decision interprets the Constitution in a way that narrows these rights, the state’s protection no longer applies. For example, if Congress decided to outlaw hunting and fishing and the Supreme Court decided this law was a valid exercise of federal power, the state constitutional provisions that protect the right to hunt and fish would effectively be meaningless. The people would have to amending the Constitution through a national convention of the states. More concretely, federal laws that control weapons and drugs override state laws and constitutional provisions that otherwise permit them. While federal marijuana policies are not strictly enforced, state-level marijuana policies in Colorado and Washington provide a prominent exception to that clarity.

The Right to Privacy

Although the specific term privacy does not appear in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, scholars have interpreted several Bill of Rights provisions as an indication that James Madison and Congress sought to protect a common-law right to privacy as they understood it: a freedom from government intrusion into personal lives, particularly at home. For example, we could view the Second Amendment as reinforcing the common-law right to self-defense in the home; the Third Amendment confirming that soldiers should not be housed in anyone’s home; the Fourth Amendment as constraining the state’s ability to intrude on someone’s home; and the due process and takings clauses of the Fifth Amendment as applying an equally high legal standard to the government’s taking a home or property (reinforced after the Civil War by the Fourteenth Amendment). Alternatively, we could argue that the Ninth Amendment anticipated the existence of a common-law right to privacy when it acknowledged the existence of basic natural rights not listed in the Bill of Rights or the body of the Constitution itself.[5]

Although several state constitutions do list the right to privacy as a protected right, the explicit constitutional recognition by the Supreme Court emerged in 1965 when the court spelled out the right to privacy for the first time in Griswold v. Connecticut, a case that struck down a state law forbidding even married individuals to use any form of contraception.[6]

Although many subsequent Supreme Court cases also dealt with privacy in the course of intimate sexual conduct, privacy also matters in the context of surveillance and monitoring.

Sexual Privacy

Although the Griswold case originally pertained only to married couples, in 1972 it was extended to apply the right to obtain contraception to unmarried people as well.[7]

Although neither decision was without controversy, the “sexual revolution” at the time may have contributed to a sense that anti-contraception laws were at the very least dated, if not in violation of people’s rights. The contraceptive coverage controversy of the Hobby Lobby case demonstrates the topics continuing relevance.

The Supreme Court’s application of the right to privacy doctrine to abortion rights was legally and politically problematic. In 1972 four states permitted abortions without restrictions, while thirteen allowed abortions “if the pregnant woman’s life or physical or mental health were endangered, if the fetus would be born with a severe physical or mental defect, or if the pregnancy had resulted from rape or incest”; abortions were completely illegal in Pennsylvania and heavily restricted in the remaining states.[8] The unalienable right to life is the central question with an abortion procedure. Questions and controversy over abortion remain in the public arena today as a result. Does one life take precedence over another? When is a fetus a human being with unalienable rights? When does life begin? Is abortion government sanctioned murder? The government had traditionally erred on the side of the life prior to Roe v. Wade. The legal landscape changed dramatically as a result of the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade,[9] when the Supreme Court decided the right to privacy encompassed a right for women to terminate a pregnancy, under certain scenarios. The justices ruled that while the government did have an interest in protecting the “potentiality of human life,” nonetheless this had to be balanced against the interests of both women’s health and women’s right to decide whether to have an abortion. Accordingly, the court established a framework to decide whether abortions could be regulated based on the fetus’s viability (i.e., potential to survive outside the womb) and the stage of pregnancy, with no restrictions permissible during the first three months of pregnancy (i.e., the first trimester), during which abortions were deemed safer for women than childbirth itself.

Starting in the 1980s, Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents began to roll back the Roe decision. A key turning point was the court’s ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, in which a plurality of the court rejected Roe’s framework based on trimesters of pregnancy and replaced it with the undue burden test, which allows restrictions prior to viability that are not “substantial obstacle[s]” (undue burdens) to women seeking an abortion.[10]

Thus, the court upheld some state restrictions, including a required waiting period between arranging and having an abortion, parental consent (or, if not possible for some reason such as incest, authorization of a judge) for minors, and the requirement that women be informed of abortion health consequences. Other restrictions such as a requirement that a married woman notify her spouse in advance were struck down as an undue burden. Since the Casey decision, many states have passed other restrictions, banning certain procedures, requiring women to have and view an ultrasound before an abortion, and implementing more stringent licensing and inspection requirements for facilities where abortions are performed.

Photo A shows a group of people in a line holding signs. The signs that are visible read
A “March for Life” in Knoxville, Tennessee, on January 20, 2013 (a), marks the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. On November 15, 2014, protestors in Chicago demonstrate against a crisis pregnancy center (b), a type of organization that counsels against abortion. (credit a: modification of work by Brian Stansberry; credit b: modification of work by Samuel Henderson)

Beyond the issues of contraception and abortion, the right to privacy has been interpreted to encompass a more general right for adults to have noncommercial, consensual sexual relationships in private. However, this legal development is relatively new; as recently as 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that states could still criminalize sex acts between two people of the same sex.[11]

That decision was overturned in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated state laws that criminalized sodomy.[12]

The state and national governments still have leeway to regulate sexual morality to some degree; “anything goes” is not the law of the land, even for actions that are consensual. The Supreme Court has declined to strike down laws in a few states that outlaw the sale of vibrators and other sex toys. Prostitution remains illegal in every state except in certain rural counties in Nevada; both polygamy (marriage to more than one other person) and bestiality (sex with animals) are illegal everywhere. And, as we saw earlier, the states may regulate obscene materials and, in certain situations, material that may be harmful to minors or otherwise indecent; to this end, states and localities have sought to ban or regulate the production, distribution, and sale of pornography.

Privacy of Communications and Property

Another example of heightened modern era privacy concerns is the recognition that society is under pervasive surveillance. Monitoring the public used to be dificult. During the Cold War, regimes in the Soviet bloc employed millions of people as domestic spies and informants to suppress internal dissent through constant public monitoring. This was expensive in required human and monetary capital and proved remarkably ineffective. Groups like the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate were unable to suppress popular uprisings undermining communist one-party rule in most of those countries in the late 1980s.

Technology has now made it much easier to track and monitor people. Police cars and roadways are equipped with cameras that can photograph the license plate of every passing car or truck and record it in a database; while allowing police to recover stolen vehicles and catch fleeing suspects, this data can also be used to track the movements of law-abiding citizens. But law enforcement officials don’t even have to go to this much work; millions of car and truck drivers pay tolls electronically without stopping at toll booths thanks to transponders attached to their vehicles, which can be read by scanners well away from any toll road or bridge to monitor traffic flow or any other purpose. The pervasive use of GPS (Global Positioning System) raises similar issues.

A photo of an E-Z Pass attached to the inside of a car windshield.
One form of technology that has made it easier to potentially monitor people’s movements is electronic toll collection, such as the E-ZPass system in the Midwest and Northeast, FasTrak in California, and I-Pass in Illinois. (credit: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk)

Even pedestrians and cyclists are relatively easy to track today. Cameras pointed at sidewalks and roadways can employ facial recognition software to identify people. Most people carry smartphones that constantly report their location to the nearest cell phone tower and broadcast a beacon signal to nearby wireless hotspots and Bluetooth devices. Police can set up a small Stingray device that identifies and tracks all cell phones that attempt to connect to it within a radius of several thousand feet. With the right software, law enforcement and criminals can remotely activate a phone’s microphone and camera, effectively planting a bug in someone’s pocket without the person even knowing it.

These are not just gimmicks in a bad science fiction movie; businesses and governments have openly admitted they are using these methods. Research shows that even metadata—information about the messages we send and the calls we make and receive, such as time, location, sender, and recipient but excluding their content—can reveal much to governments and businesses. Even when information is collected in anonymously it can often be traced back to individuals, since people travel and communicate in largely predictable patterns.

Drones (small preprogrammed or remotely piloted aircraft) are becoming the next frontier of privacy issues. Drones can fly virtually undetected and monitor events from overhead. They can peek into fenced backyards and monitor activity inside houses and other buildings using infrared cameras. The Fourth Amendment was written in an era when finding out what was going on in someone’s home meant either going inside or peeking through a window; applying its protections today, when seeing into someone’s house can be as easy as viewing a remote computer screen, is no longer simple.

In the United States, many civil liberties advocates are concerned that laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act (i.e., Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), passed weeks after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, have given the federal government too much power by making it easy for officials to seek and obtain search warrants or in some cases to bypass warrant requirements altogether. Critics argue that the Patriot Act has largely been used to prosecute ordinary criminals, in particular drug dealers, rather than the intended terrorists. Most European countries, at least on paper, have opted for laws that protect against such government surveillance, perhaps mindful of past experience with communist and fascist regimes. European countries also tend to have stricter laws limiting the collection, retention, and use of private data by companies, which makes it harder for governments to obtain and use that data. Most recently, the battle between Apple Inc. and the National Security Agency (NSA) over whether Apple should allow the government access to key encrypted information has intensified this debate.

link to learningSeveral groups lobby the government, such as The Electronic Frontier Foundation and The Electronic Privacy Information Center, on issues related to privacy in the information age, particularly on the Internet.


All this is not to say that technological surveillance tools do not have value or are inherently bad. They can be used for many purposes that would benefit society and, perhaps, even enhance our freedoms. Spending less time stuck in traffic because we know there’s been an accident—detected automatically because the cell phones that normally whiz by at the speed limit are now crawling along—gives us time to spend on more valuable activities. Capturing criminals and terrorists by recognizing them or their vehicles before they can continue their agendas will protect the life, liberty, and property of the public at large. At the same time, however, the emergence of these technologies means calls for vigilance and limits on what businesses and governments can do with the information they collect and the length of time they may retain it. We might also be concerned about how this technology could be used by more oppressive regimes. If the technological resources employed by today’s governments had been available to the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate, would those repressive regimes have fallen? How much privacy and freedom should citizens sacrifice in order to feel safe?

The courts continue to define the interrelationship of constitutional amendments over time. Because it was not explicitly laid out in the Constitution, privacy rights required clarification through public laws and court precedents. Important cases addressing the right to privacy relate to abortion, sexual behavior, internet activity, and the privacy of personal texts and cell phone calls. Where we draw the line between privacy and public safety is an ongoing discussion and the courts are a significant player.

Questions to Consider

  1. Explain the difference between a right listed in the Bill of Rights and a common-law right.
  2. Describe two ways in which new technological developments challenge traditional notions of privacy.
  3. Which rights and freedoms for citizens do you think our government does a good job of protecting? Why?
  4. Which rights and freedoms could it better protect, and how?
  5. In which areas do you think people’s rights and liberties are at risk of government intrusion? Why? Which solutions would you propose?
  6. What are the implications of the Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby?
  7. How does the provision for and the protection of individual rights and freedoms consume government resources of time and money? Since these are in effect the people’s resources, do you think they are being well spent? Why or why not?
  8. There is an old saying that it is better for 100 guilty people to go free than for an innocent person to be unjustly punished. Do you agree? Why or why not? What do you think is the right balance for our society to strike?

Terms to Remember

right to privacy–the right to be free of government intrusion

undue burden test–a means of deciding whether a law that makes it harder for women to seek abortions is constitutional

  1. United States v. Darby Lumber, 312 U.S. 100 (1941).
  2. Printz v. United States, 521 U.S. 898 (1997); National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. __ (2012).
  3. See Douglas Shinkle, "State Constitutional Right to Hunt and Fish." National Conference of State Legislatures, November 9, 2015. http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/state-constitutional-right-to-hunt-and-fish.aspx (March 4, 2016).
  4. Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U.S. 74 (1980).
  5. See Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965). This discussion parallels the debate among the members of the Supreme Court in the Griswold case.
  6. Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965)
  7. Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972).
  8. See Rachel Benson Gold. March 2003. "Lessons from Before Roe: Will Past be Prologue?" The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy 6, No. 1. https://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/tgr/06/1/gr060108.html (March 4, 2016).
  9. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
  10. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
  11. Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986).
  12. Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).


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