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DeShaney Revisited: Justifying an Enriched Sense of Liberal Justice

DeShaney Revisited: Justifying an Enriched Sense of Liberal Justice

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Published by channing_j_turner
The implications of liberal philosophy on the judicial interpretation of DeShaney v. Winnebago and a broader examination of liberal philosophy in the United States.
The implications of liberal philosophy on the judicial interpretation of DeShaney v. Winnebago and a broader examination of liberal philosophy in the United States.

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Published by: channing_j_turner on May 11, 2010
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Channing Turner HON 494: Law, Justice and Democracy — Final Paper May 7, 2010
 DeShaney
Revisited: Justifying an Enriched Sense of Liberal Justice
INTRODUCTION
Few cases offer a greater emotional impression than that of 
 DeShaney v.Winnebago,
the tragic story of an aggrieved mother denied remedies for governmentinaction that resulted in the savage beating and permanent retardation of her 4-year-oldson. Yet, many cite the case as a revered instance of the law’s superiority over the baseemotions such tragedies can produce. Despite fervor for justice and proper amends, theSupreme Court sought to decide the case as its capacity demanded: impartial interpretersof the law. The majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Rehnquist effectuated thatduty and now stands as a landmark application of the principle of negative liberty, theideal of restricting government institutions from interfering in the lives of individualsregardless of the welfare it might provide.The Rehnquist opinion ultimately rejects Melody DeShaney’s claim that, byfailing save her son, Joshua, from the abuse of her ex-husband, the WisconsinDepartment of Social Services violated his equal protection under the FourteenthAmendment.
1
Despite overwhelming evidence of abuse and numerous reports indicatingthe agency suspected Joshua’s father had repeatedly beaten him into the hospital, DSSdeclined to remove the child. Finally, in March 1984, Randy DeShaney beat Joshua soseverely he fell into a coma, suffering brain damage so acute he will spend the remainder of his life “profoundly retarded.”
2
 
 
 Turner 2
Regardless, Melody DeShaney’s § 1983 action against the agency failed. Evenextreme incompetence on the part of DSS could not constitute a breach of the FourteenthAmendment, said the Court. Its protection extends only to instances of state interferenceagainst individuals, and by declining to act, the agency had never interfered. Further, theFourteenth Amendment confers no affirmative guarantee to “freedom…from unjustifiedintrusions on personal security” by private individuals.
3
Indeed, the judgment appears a levelheaded interpretation of the law. Prohibitionon unequal treatment has historically applied to cases of affirmative governmentinterference or conferred benefits, not failure to perform a duty. For example, police whoin good faith fail to stop a murderer from murdering should probably not be held liablefor their inaction. On its face, therefore, the majority opinion rests comfortably within thelegal system’s traditions.Yet, as stoic legal scholars nod in time with Rehnquist’s gavel, this principle andthe interpretation leading to
 DeShaney’s
outcome merit another look. The approach a justice chooses can change everything—from the cases deemed relevant precedent to the principles those cases uphold in the law. The tragic circumstances of 
 DeShaney
earnestly beg the question:
Must 
the law remain neutral in the face of such blatant abrogation of duty?A far-from-simple principle, the invocation of negative liberty cannot simply beaccepted as a platitude substituting deeper examination
.
This essay will argue for broader theory of interpretation, one that provides a more comprehensive analysis of 
 DeShaney
and its affect on the underlying principles of our legal system. While it may fit into our legal tradition, is a decision’s fit the only basis for evaluating
 DeShaney’s
outcome? After 
 
 Turner 3
clarifying the principles at work, these principles will be placed into the greater, meta-doctrine of our liberal society in order to yield a more holistic interpretation that calls intoquestion negative liberty’s excusive application in this case. While the Court’sinterpretation in
 DeShaney
fits one possible outcome of our country’s liberal principles,these same principles leave open the possibility for a richer sense of justice—formed inlight of the values cherished by, and integral to, our liberal society.
I: A HOLISTIC THEORY OF INTERPRETATION
In the American political system, the chief duty of the judiciary is generally heldto be interpretation of the law, a view dating back to Alexander Hamilton’s defense of the judicial branch in
 Federalist 78
. There, he advanced the view that “the interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts…to ascertain [their] meaning,as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding form the legislative body.”
4
However—as fortune or misfortune would have it—Hamilton and his contemporariesremained conspicuously silent regarding the proper approach to such interpretation.
 Federalist 78
offers only cursory guidelines, namely that judges must be “bound down bystrict rules and precedents…in every particular case that comes before them” to mitigatearbitrary judgments, and only in deference to the “fundamental law” of the Constitutionshould judges exercise the power to review and invalidate actions of the legislature.
5
 Notwithstanding these restrictions, judges have considerable discretion in the techniquesthey employ to interpret the law. Nonetheless, judges typically favor formal approaches to interpretation.Consistent and structured approaches provide stability and legitimacy to the legal system,for the system’s reliance on precedential justification grants court cases much greater 

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