Justice Clarence Thomas invoked the Declaration in his dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that legalized same-sex marriage. “Since well before 1787,” he wrote, “liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits.” Other conservatives now cite the Declaration to lay the groundwork for a Supreme Court challenge to Roe, which they claim violates the God-given right to life. When Alabama legislators recently passed a law banning abortion, they cited the Declaration, saying that “from conception … all men are created equal” and possess a fundamental right to life.
And just last week, Justice Elena Kagan quoted the Declaration in her dissenting opinion from the Court’s decision that partisan gerrymandering is a question for legislatures rather than for courts. “Is that how American democracy is supposed to work?” she asked, citing the Declaration’s insistence that governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
Whether you are persuaded by Justice Thomas or Justice Kagan, it’s striking that the debate between conservatives and liberals on the Court continues to revolve around how to read the Constitution through the lens of the Declaration. How are we to balance its sometimes conflicting “self-evident” truths? That is the ongoing question of American politics and constitutional discourse.