In Heller, the court was at least dealing with a right the Constitution actually mentions. But the majority and minority justices demonstrated that there are powerful, detailed, historically grounded "originalist" arguments for opposite understandings of what the Framers intended with that right to "keep and bear arms."
Now the court must slog through an utterly predictable torrent of litigation, writing, piecemeal, a federal gun code concerning the newfound individual right. What trigger locks or other safety requirements impermissibly burden the exercise of this right? What registration requirements, background checks, waiting periods for purchasers, ballistic identifications? What restrictions on ammunition? On places where guns may be purchased or carried? On the kinds of people (e.g., those with domestic violence records) who may own guns? On the number of gun purchases in a month?
Judicial conservatism requires judges to justify their decisions with reference to several restraining principles, including deference to the democratic branches of government, and to states' responsibilities under federalism. But, Wilkinson writes, Heller proves that when the only principle is originalism, and when conscientious people come to different conclusions about the Framers' intentions, originalist judges must resolve the conflict by voting their policy preferences.
It has been said that the most important word in the Supreme Court's lexicon is not "liberty" or "equality" or even "justice," it is "five." But whereas in baseball a tie goes to the runner, in controversies about the constitutionality of legislation, a tie between serious arguments should, Wilkinson says, tilt judicial judgment to the democratic side -- the legislature.
When rights are unambiguously enumerated, courts should protect them vigorously. But Wilkinson says that when a right's definition is debatable, generous judicial deference should be accorded to legislative judgments -- particularly those of the states, which should enjoy constitutional space to function as laboratories for testing policy variations.
Roe and Heller, says Wilkinson, diminish liberty by "handing our democratic destiny to the courts." Many libertarian conservatives disagree, arguing that the protection of individual liberty requires robust judicial circumscription of democracy.
So, regarding judging, too, conservatism is a house divided. And as Lincoln said (sort of), a house divided against itself is really interesting.
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