Substantive Due Process and the Problem of Horse Sex

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L'article qui suit à été rédigée par une jeune chercheur en droit. Il revient sur la volonté d'interdire la zoophilie dans l'état de Washington suite à l'affaire d'Enumclaw et le décès de MrHands.

L'auteur montre dans une analyse juridique fouillée que de telles lois seraient inconstitutionnelles. Un autre auteur s'oppose à son point de vue dans un article également disponible sur le ziki (Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Horses).

Texte intégral

Substantive Due Process and the Problem of Horse Sex

by Natalie Daniels

November 2006

At the end of 2005, the -Seattle Times wrote an article ranking its top-20 news stories, based on articles most often accessed online. Five of the top-20 stories were written about the same news item — horse sex.[1] In July 2005, a man in Enumclaw died from a perforated colon as a direct result of having sex with a stallion. The horse was physically undamaged by the encounter, which put law-enforcement officials in something of a bind. Something terrible and wrong had occurred, but it appeared that no laws had been broken. Washington was one of 14 states with no laws against bestiality. And, if the animal was unharmed, there could be no charge of animal cruelty, which was a crime in Washington. Officers finally settled for charging a man who had videotaped the event with the misdemeanor of trespassing, as the two men had entered a neighbor’s barn without permission in order to facilitate the amorous encounter.[2]

The Washington Legislature reacted with resounding resolve. On March 24, 2006, Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law Senate Bill 6417, a measure that passed unanimously in both the House and Senate.[3] The bill makes bestiality a Class-C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.[4] Obviously, this was the politically savvy move to make. No legislator wants to be known as the leader of the pro-horse-sex movement. However, while this bill is unquestionably politically sound, it may not be legally sound. The sponsor of this bill stated that her purpose in drafting the legislation was to protect animals, and yet everyone admitted that, in this case at least, no animals were harmed. Does the bestiality bill have a true legitimate state purpose, or is it motivated by a bare desire to persecute a politically unpopular group — the animal lover? Is this bill mere morals legislation, and, if so, is that okay?

This article will analyze morals legislation as a substantive due-process question, and explore when, if ever, traditional American values should be codified. Part II defines morals legislation, and describes the mechanics of substantive due process. Part III questions the judiciary’s role in deciding when or if morals legislation is appropriate. Finally, Part IV applies substantive due-process reasoning to the issue of bestiality in order to illustrate the costs associated both with finding that morals legislation is a legitimate state interest, and that it is not.

Morals Legislation and Substantive Due Process Defined

Morals legislation is any law that is justified solely by “asserting a legitimate government interest in prohibiting or encouraging certain human behavior without any empirical connection to goods other than the alleged good of eliminating or increasing . . . the behavior at issue.”[5] For example, murder is a moral issue, prohibited by the Ten Commandments in Judeo-Christian tradition. It is also a public-safety issue, advancing the vital state interest of keeping people alive so that they may be taxed and otherwise governed. Therefore, while murder is wrong, laws regarding murder are not morals legislation. In contrast, laws against coveting your neighbor’s horse (so to speak) are morals legislation. While most American citizens, and all of Washington’s legislators, are firmly against bestiality, be it for religious, ethical, or even aesthetic reasons, it is more difficult to point to a clear state interest in creating and enforcing laws prohibiting inter-species sex.

To be valid under the U.S. Constitution, morals legislation must pass muster under substantive due-process doctrine. The 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause states in relevant part: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process or law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”[6] The substantive component of the Due Process Clause is generally derived from the word “liberty,” meaning that human conduct may not be regulated by state or federal law to the extent that such regulation would amount to an unconstitutional denial of liberty.[7]

In determining whether a law violates substantive due process, it is absolutely vital to determine whether or not the law impinges on a fundamental or non-fundamental right, as this determines the standard of review that will be applied.[8] If the right exists, but is non-fundamental, meaning not core to human existence, then the standard is one of rational basis.[9] Under rational-basis review, a challenged law will be upheld so long as a court can find that the law was intended to further a legitimate government objective, and there is some chance that the law as stated will actually further the objective.[10] In practice, courts will go to extraordinary lengths to find a legitimate objective, creating justifications for the law if no clear answers are to be found in the legislative history.[11] Substantively, the law will stand.

Laws regulating fundamental rights are far more likely to be invalidated under substantive due-process doctrine. Instead of rational-basis review, courts apply a strict scrutiny standard, meaning that the law in question must be found unconstitutional unless the governmental objective in question is compelling, and the regulation applied is absolutely necessary to achieving that goal.[12] However, because the finding of a fundamental right means that a legislative body is barred from ever impinging on a citizen’s ability to engage in the activity in question, relatively few rights are fundamental. Generally, such rights are found only when a law tends to impinge on privacy or autonomy interests. Questions include what limitations, if any, may be placed on privacy,[13] abortion,[14] family and marriage,[15] and the right to die. The vast majority of these questions address sexuality and sexual expression.[16] All of these issues are highly controversial, because all of them hinge on whether morality is relative, and thereby personal to the individual, or whether it is absolute, meaning uniformly applicable to all.

The judiciary has a checkered past when it comes to substantive due-process doctrine, and does not lightly interfere with the legislative process. In Lochner v. New York,[17] a statute was challenged that limited the working hours of bakery employees to 60 hours per week. The Supreme Court invalidated the law for interfering with the right of employees and employers to freely enter into contract.[18] While the Court did not label the right to contract freely as fundamental, it nevertheless held that employers should be able to hire employees to work as many hours as men were willing to work, and that employees should have the right to work as many hours as they were willing to.[19] Lochner was an exceedingly unpopular decision, and was overturned in 1937. States have been free for some time to regulate the freedom of contract in all sorts of ways deemed vital to the health and safety of their citizens. Nevertheless, the process used by the Court to arrive at its decision was not so very different from that employed today. Because of this, Lochner remains a vital lesson in the possible consequences of relying on the judiciary to determine the appropriate course of legislative action.

Modern jurisprudence regarding substantive due process and the recognition of fundamental rights centers on Griswold v. Connecticut.[20] In Griswold, doctors were found guilty of giving contraceptive advice to married couples in violation of a Connecticut statute that prohibited any person from using “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing contraception.”[21] The Supreme Court, in evaluating this statute, expressed an unwillingness to follow the reasoning used in Lochner, noting that “[w]e do not sit as a super-legislature to determine the wisdom, need, and propriety of laws that touch economic problems, business affairs, or social conditions.”[22] Nevertheless, the Court invalidated the law, finding that many of the rights specifically guaranteed by the Constitution could not be given their full intended force without a penumbra right of privacy into which government may not intrude.[23]

Griswold illustrates the internal conflict of the judiciary in recognizing a fundamental right. The Court was clearly uncomfortable with “Lochnerizing,” and feared to isolate an area of human existence from even the possibility of being regulated, only to find that the judiciary is out of lock-step with what people genuinely want and need from their government. Yet the Court was equally unwilling to abdicate its role as a limiting force on legislative activity. Therefore, the Court chose to deny any association with Lochner, while simultaneously using a Lochner-like process to invalidate the statute.

Overall, the Supreme Court has been willing to employ substantive due-process doctrine to protect individual citizens from overly intrusive laws. The question remains, however, whether the Court’s self-imposed role as a protector of privacy and autonomy is a legitimate one, and if so, whether the Court has overstepped the bounds of that role in determining what interests a state may genuinely have in promoting morality among its citizens.

Institutional Incompetence — Who Should Decide What Rights Exist?

Views differ on when, if ever, it is proper for the judiciary to act as a check on the legislative branch, limiting what laws may be enforced. Review of morals legislation is the height of judicial activism, because every time the judiciary creates a new fundamental right, it removes the underlying moral debate from the hands of the citizenry, who can no longer speak through their elected representatives to demand that certain behaviors be prohibited. As Lochner demonstrates, endorsement of such judicial paternalism may come down to nothing more than whether the outcome of the decision seems favorable. Issues of privacy and morality in particular present an interesting and unique challenge. What should a court do when it is convinced that, proper role of the judiciary aside, the proper role of the legislature is no role whatsoever; that the people must be left alone?

In his dissenting opinion in Lawrence v. Texas,[24] Justice Scalia sounded the death knell of state morals legislation:

The Texas [homosexual sodomy] statute undeniably seeks to further the belief of [the State’s] citizens that certain forms of sexual behavior are “immoral and unacceptable,” — the same interest furthered by criminal laws against fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity …. The Texas statute, it says, “furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.” … This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation. If, as the Court asserts, the promotion of majoritarian sexual morality is not even a legitimate state interest, none of the above-mentioned laws can survive rational-basis review …. It is indeed true that “later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress;” and when that happens, later generations can repeal those laws. But it is the premise of our system that those judgments are to be made by the people, and not imposed by a governing caste that knows best.[25] [emphasis is added]

Scalia is essentially saying that the political process itself will ensure the appropriate outcome for the given cultural climate. A genuine disagreement as to issues of right and wrong is nothing more than a culture war, best settled in the trenches of political debate.[26] Further, the judicial branch is institutionally incompetent to decide issues of morality, having no greater insight into such issues than the average person.

Justice Scalia is not alone in his assertion that there is a legitimate governmental interest in prohibiting or encouraging certain human behavior simply as a public evil or a public good. Morals legislation has similarly been promoted by natural-law theorist John Finnis.[27] Finnis strove to prove, relying largely on ancient Greek philosophy, that homosexual conduct is undeniably and immutably immoral.[28] Finnis then argued that the proper role of government is to make laws that encourage those things which are moral, like heterosexual married sex, and discourage those things which are not, like all other forms of sex. By implication, the role of the judiciary under this view is to avoid interfering with legislation regulating immoral behavior, because if it really is possible to make objective and universal determinations of which activities are moral and which are immoral, then it is entirely appropriate for legislators to engage in morals legislation.[29]

A contrasting view is presented by theorist Gayle Rubin, who endorses a system of sexual pluralism. Rubin posits that American culture has a fundamentally unhealthy view of sexuality, one that demands conformity and repression to an extent that would never be tolerated in other areas of human existence. According to Rubin, society is unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that sexual preferences could simply be a matter of taste; that sodomy, for example, could be a lot like lima beans — some like ’em, some don’t, and some could take ’em or leave ’em. She believes the answer is sexual pluralism, a society where sex is judged and limited only by “the way partners treat one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence or absence of coercion, and the quantity and quality of the pleasures they provide.”[30]

If morality is entirely personal to the individual, and if society is willing to agree to disagree about issues of morality, then sexual pluralism is desirable. There is a certain intellectual and emotional purity in simply doing away with sexual limitations. Never again would we have to ask ourselves “how closely related is too closely related,” or “what is the maximum acceptable number of husbands,” or “where exactly is the line between porn star and prostitute.” However, at least some of the things that people do to themselves are bad for them. Once consent becomes the rubric, society loses the power to protect people from themselves. Currently, there are activities outside the sexual arena where adult citizens are prevented from doing things they may very well wish to do, even if these activities harm no one but themselves. Drug abuse, self-mutilation, and suicide are examples that come readily to mind. Morals legislation is one method by which legislators may curb self-destructive behavior.

However, to concede the field of battle to Scalia and Finnis at this point is to ignore the costs involved in a judicial hands-off policy, where the Court declines to take on the role of defining the limits of legislative power. The American legal system was never designed with pure majoritarian rule in mind — America is not a democracy; it is a republic. It is entirely appropriate for judges to act with a tendency towards paternalism and a hint of activism. For example, Brown v. Board of Education[31] sparked more violence and discontent than Roe v. Wade; yet that decision is now hailed as having been necessary to push society in the direction of racial equality. The alternative is to always bow to the will of the majority, which has acted in manifestly unjust ways in the past, and arguably continues to do so.

Scalia, in labeling the issue as a culture war, unwittingly demonstrates exactly why the judiciary need not bow to the will of the legislature in these issues. A culture war is, almost by definition, temporary and subject to change as the taste and whim of the public is subject to change. If, as Scalia admits, cultural views of morality can change over time, then morality is not an absolute truth which can be known by all and applied to everyone. And, if morality is personal to the individual, then it is simply not the stuff of vital state interests. Take sodomy, for example. Any individual forced to engage in the activity against his will is already protected by rape statutes, and any individual voluntarily engaged in such activity is presumably not looking for legal protection. All others are simply not vital to the debate.

One concern remains, however — that of Scalia’s parade of horribles — that incest, masturbation, polygamy, adultery, and bestiality may no longer be regulated, and will presumably now run rampant through society. If all of these issues truly are merely moral in nature, then none of them may be regulated. The judiciary would then be substituting its moral compass for the legislature’s, finding an issue to be “merely moral” when it invalidates a statute, but holding that a statute advances a vital state interest when the judiciary refuses to condone a particular behavior. Perhaps the real problem with bestiality is that it is morally distasteful, and all possible vital state interests are but a ruse.

Bestiality Revisited

Assuming that the judiciary should be allowed to invalidate at least some morals legislation, can there be a privacy or autonomy interest in bestiality? Thirty-seven states outlaw animal sex — must they all be repealed? Under a substantive due-process analysis, a court would be unlikely to decide that bestiality is a fundamental right. While sex is generally a private and autonomous act, sex has never, in and of itself, been held to be a fundamental right. However, though most laws regarding non-fundamental rights will generally be found valid with little more than a cursory review, the Lawrence case demonstrates that rational basis of review might be a more stringent test in the context of a law that interferes with sexual expression.

Several state interests may be advanced by bestiality laws. These include: protection of animals from physical abuse; protection of animals on the basis that they can’t consent; safety concerns in protecting humans from causing their colons to become perforated; and health concerns in preventing the spread of animal-to-human diseases. Each of these purposes will be briefly examined. Anti-bestiality law cannot be justified on the grounds of protecting animals from physical abuse, because animal-abuse statutes cover that. As noted in the introduction, no horses were harmed in the making of Senate Bill 6417. As for protecting animals because they cannot consent, the truth is that animals, particularly domesticated ones, don’t consent to most of the things that happen to them. Who’s to say that a sheep doesn’t feel a greater sense of personal violation when being sheared than it experiences during a cold winter’s night in the company of Farmer Brown?

If the vital interest is human safety, then anti-bestiality laws do infringe on autonomy interests. Presumably, an adult should be able to weigh the risks of colon perforation against the joys of horse sex and act accordingly. This leaves the possible interest of disease control, perhaps the most valid reason for regulating bestiality. However, the law can’t prohibit all human contact with animals — that would eliminate the ranching industry and the possibility of pet ownership. So the diseases to be controlled would have to be sexually transmitted ones. Assuming that there is a risk of such diseases being transmitted between species, there are still two problems. The first is how to justify regulating the animal lover who practices safe sex. The second is how to justify banning sex with animals, but still allowing humans who have an STD to have consensual sex, when the risk of spreading disease is so much greater.

Even if every one of these justifications is a legitimate and vital state interest, none of this analysis uncovers the true root of the issue, which is that the vast majority of people think that bestiality is disgusting, distasteful, and just plain wrong. Whatever state interest is given for bestiality legislation will largely be a sham, because none of those rational reasons account for the moral outrage and revulsion that bestiality engenders.


In the realm of constitutional interpretation, morals legislation is a minefield. There is no safe ground, and no easy or obvious answers. In addition, there are costs associated with both sides of the morals-legislation debate. Those who would dismiss “mere” morals legislation as an unworthy form of state interest must be able to defend that assertion in all situations, not just those where the issue is not morally offensive to them personally. It is intellectually dishonest, for example, to defend anti-bestiality laws, but to ridicule those who would oppose gay marriage for championing “mere morals” legislation.

On the other hand, those who would defend morality as its own vital state interest, worthy of consideration apart from any public health or safety concern, must be able to defend that in situations where they are confined in unwanted ways by the morality of others. It is equally dishonest to support anti-abortion legislation or the banning of gay marriage, but to argue that these laws are qualitatively different from legislation regulating the head coverings of women, or the eating of sacred cows. In the end, however, the costs of allowing the judiciary to weigh in on the culture war, to place limits on allowable morals legislation, are relatively minor in comparison to the unacceptable costs of allowing majoritarian politics to proceed unchecked, and to impinge on the liberty interests of the immoral minority.

Natalie Daniels is a third-year law student at Seattle University, an associate editor for the Seattle University Law Review, and is currently working as a judicial extern at the Federal District Courthouse in Seattle. She would like to thank Professors David Skover and Julie Shapiro for their assistance and support.


Article connexe

  • Peter M. Cicchino, “Reason and the Rule of Law: Should Bare Assertions of ‘Public Morality’ Qualify as Legitimate Government Interests for the Purposes of Equal Protection Review?,” 87 Geo. L.J. 139, 140 (1998).
  • U.S. Const. amend 14, § 1. This portion of the Constitution is also the basis for all equal-protection claims. Substantive due-process and equal-protection claims are almost always intertwined, but the analysis is somewhat different. As the scope of this article is limited to substantive due-process, equal-protection concerns will largely be ignored.
  • 16A Am. Jur. 2d Constitutional Law § 403.
  • 16B Am. Jur. 2d Constitutional Law § 912.
  • Id.
  • Id.
  • See Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma, 348 U.S. 483 (1955) (law prohibiting optician from selling eyeglass lenses without prescription was constitutional even if it exacted “a needless, wasteful requirement in many cases”).
  • 16A Am. Jur. 2d Constitutional Law § 403.
  • Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) (recognizing a fundamental right to privacy).
  • Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1973) (recognizing a fundamental, though not absolute, right to abortion).
  • See Moore v. City of East Cleveland, 431 U.S. 494 (1977) (invalidating a statute limiting occupancy of any dwelling unit to members of the same family); Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967) (recognizing a fundamental right to marry by invalidating an anti-miscegenation law); Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000) (recognizing a “fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.”).
  • This is not to say that sexuality and morality are interchangeable terms. Issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia, for example, are moral, because they concern whether or not there can ever be a great enough good in ending suffering to justify the evil of taking life.
  • 198 U.S. 45 (1905).
  • Id. at 64.
  • Id.
  • 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
  • Id. at 480.
  • Id. at 482.
  • Id. at 484.
  • 539 U.S. 558 (2003). This case is an exception to the rule that laws regarding non-fundamental rights will always be upheld. The Supreme Court invalidated a Texas statute under a rational-basis review standard for criminalizing sodomy between two people of the same sex, without finding a fundamental right to sex.
  • Id. at 599, 603-04 (Scalia, J. dissenting).
  • Social conservatives are not the only ones who share this view. For example, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, though supportive of reproductive freedom, nevertheless criticized Roe v. Wade, believing the Supreme Court improperly fanned the flames of controversy at a time when various state legislatures were naturally trending towards more liberal abortion statutes. Suddenly, rather than gradually liberalizing their laws, state legislatures began working to minimize the impact of Roe. See Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Some Thoughts on Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade, 63 N.C.L.Rev. 375 (1985).
  • John M. Finnis, “Law, Morality and ‘Sexual Orientation’” 69 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1049 (1994).
  • Id. at 1055.
  • In fact, Finnis’s article may have been born out of an affidavit he submitted in the matter of Romer v. Evens, asking the court to uphold a Colorado constitutional amendment that prohibited legal protection for homosexuals. See Cicchino, supra note 5, at 158.
  • Id. at 245. In practical terms, this would mean regulating morals issues on the basis of consent. The problem is that many of these activities, particularly those sexual in nature, are assumed to be consensual, and proving that consent was lacking turns out to be very traumatic for the victim, if not downright impossible.
  • 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (holding school segregation based on race to be unconstitutional).