BYU Law Review


Jay S. Bybee


In Barron v. Mayor of Baltimore (1833), the Supreme Court held that the Bill of Rights applied to the federal government alone. Following the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the Supreme Court reconsidered the rule of Barron. The Court first reaffirmed the rule of Barron and held that neither the Privileges or Immunities Clause nor the Due Process Clause made the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. It then entered a period of “absorption,” where the Court held that the Due Process Clause guaranteed some minimal rights found in the Bill of Rights, but not necessarily the same rights. Ultimately, the Court announced a congruence principle: incorporated rights would be identical to textual rights, jot-for-jot. The congruence principle came with a limitation, however: only select provisions of the Bill of Rights would apply to the states. Nevertheless, selective incorporation is ongoing, as the Court has declared three provisions of the Bill of Rights incorporated in the last decade, and there are other provisions in the Bill of Rights and elsewhere in the Constitution that the Court may yet declared incorporated. Incorporation may be the most consequential development in the Constitution’s history. But the Court’s record on incorporation is not a flattering one. This Article reviews the troubled history of incorporation and considers the arguments for incorporating the remainder of the Bill of Rights and provisions of the Constitution beyond the Bill of Rights. The Article concludes with three points. First, the Court’s current theory based on the Due Process Clause is textually incoherent. Selective incorporation is descriptive of what the Court has done, but it is not a theory of interpretation. There are better theories available, but so far, the Court has resisted any additional changes in its approach. Second, in adopting the congruence principle, the Court has over-enforced some constitutional provisions and under-enforced others. The Court’s congruence principle skews the choice of the substantive rule because it forces the Court to find a single rule applicable to all levels of government. Indeed, the Court’s congruence principle may have deterred it from completing the incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Third, the Article concludes that the congruence principle may be convenient for the Court, but congruence cannot justify the Court’s choices. Incorporation has vastly expanded the Court’s authority to regulate the states, without the sanction of legislation or amendment under Article V. Incorporation has also constrained Congress’s power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment. Through incorporation the Court has altered both our federalism and our separation of powers.

This is the first part of a two-part study of the Court’s congruence principle. The second part will appear in the next issue of the Brigham Young University Law Review as Jay S. Bybee, The Congruent Constitution (Part Two): Reverse Incorporation, 48 BYU L. REV. 2 (2022).


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