This article is authored by Akash Krishnan, a law student from ICFAI Law School, Hyderabad. It discusses in detail the origin of natural law, its application in the core legislative documents of the United States, its interpretation by judicial bodies, and the reasons for its decline under the current judicial system.
It has been published by Rachit Garg.
In simple words, natural law can be defined as the law born out of morality that guides us through our ability to reason. It is the invisible force that guides us on the journey of life and helps us choose between right and wrong. It is pertinent to note that this concept of natural law has been at the core of American jurisprudence since its very conception. From the United States Declaration of Independence to the framing of the United States Constitution itself, reliance has been placed on natural law time and again.
Over several decades, natural law has played a crucial role in the interpretation of common law by different judges of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, and it has been referred to directly in over 1400 cases to date. However, even after repeated reliance on the concept of natural law, the courts have failed to provide an extensive definition of the same. Over time, the use of natural law in decision-making has been both lauded and condemned by multiple judges across the USA.
Origin of natural law
The roots of natural law can be traced back to the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who is also regarded as the founding father of natural law. He provided a distinction between natural law and man-made law by stating that the law of man varies from place to place while the law of nature is constant in all places. He believed that the source of natural law is the human ability to reason, which is derived from God himself. Following Aristotle, another Greek philosopher, Plato was of the view that there exists a society that is free from chaos because of the existence of proper order. This order arises from the fundamental principles of goodness that are embedded within every human being. The Roman jurist St. Paul was of the opinion that natural law is a law that is written in the hearts of all human beings. Another Roman jurist, Cicero, was of the view that both natural law and natural justice originate from nature and from the duties of human beings that lead to the unification of humanity. He further noted that natural law imposes a duty on all human beings to contribute toward the betterment of society.
In the 13th century, an eminent scholar and jurist, St. Thomas Aquinas, defined natural law. He stated that “natural law is the light of human reason by which a person discerns what is good and what is evil.” According to him, the first principle of natural law is the use of practical reason to determine the truth and for the purpose of undertaking any action. This principle acts as a guide to all humans and helps them understand which actions they should undertake and which actions they should avoid. He added that the 10 commandments of the Bible act as the divine source of natural law.
Walter Burns was the first American philosopher, to establish a relationship between natural law and natural liberty. He theorised that natural law consists of the reasons based on which the exercise of natural liberty could be controlled and that natural liberty was to be subjected to the limitations of natural law at all times. He believed that natural law had a foundation in the physical world and it guided humans as to how to use their freedom. His theory was based on the following two assumptions:
- All human beings were equally free.
- All human beings had the power to preserve their liberty.
Natural law in the American context
The Constitution of the United States of America
Grotius, also known as the father of international law, was one of the first philosophers who stated that the natural law doctrine is part and parcel of modern international law and that there should be a universally valid natural law that is acceptable by the international community as a whole. This ideology was used as a stepping stone by the fathers of the US constitution while including natural law theories into the very core of the American constitution. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution, incorporated the right to pursue happiness by all Americans into the constitutional framework by relying upon the theories of natural law. According to him, true happiness could be achieved by committing to human reason. The US Constitution, under Article 6, i.e., the supremacy clause, specifically recognises that obligations under international law are binding on the American government due to the principles of natural law embedded in the Constitution. The same was recognised in the landmark case of The Pacquete Habana vs. the United States (1900).
Now let us try and understand the relationship between the principles of natural law and the origin of the US Constitution.
Origin of the US Constitution
The Constitution of the United States was drafted in Philadelphia in the year 1787, and as of today, it forms the fundamental basis of the country. It is pertinent to note that the founding fathers of the US Constitution followed the traditional natural law theory that is based on God rather than the natural law of enlightenment that is based on human beings. They believed that the primary source of law and all rights and obligations that come with it are derived from God himself, and thus the natural law of God should guide American society through its constitution. Thus, the founding fathers based the constitution on the ideology that when God created the universe, he also created a system of law to keep the universe in check, i.e., the natural law, and this natural law supersedes any law that is created by man.
Difference between the traditional natural law and the natural law of enlightenment
The traditional natural law flows from the works of Aristotle, Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc., who put forth the view that natural law is the law of God and human beings follow natural law by the principles of human reason that have been embedded in them by God himself. On the other hand, the natural law of enlightenment flows from the works of Becker and Tocqueville, who believed that natural law has its roots in the general will of human beings and that the legislative majority is the supreme power that introduces and enforces the principles of natural law. They did not believe in the proposition that natural law originated from God himself.
The founding fathers and their ideologies of natural law
The reason that natural law is at the core of the US Constitution is the founding fathers’ ideologies regarding natural law. Lets us now look into the views of some of the founding fathers regarding the principles of natural law that were put forth by them during the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.
James Madison- The Father of the US Constitution
He was of the view that before human beings could be deemed as subjects of civil society, they should be treated as subjects of God himself. Since God has created the universe, every human being owes a duty toward God by virtue of his existence in the universe. This duty has precedence over the duties owed by man in a civil society toward other human beings.
He was of the view that by creating this universe, God had also created a supreme and uniform law for all human beings. This law predated all man-made laws and is known as the law of nature. He further added that even though the law of nature is unwritten and uncodified, it cannot be repealed or overridden by any man-made law as the rights that emerge from the law of nature, i.e. natural rights are inalienable rights of human beings that are provided by God and, thus, are eternal in nature.
He based his reasoning of traditional natural law on the fact that since God is the creator of the universe, he has absolute power over all human beings. Thus, God has the power to prescribe a set of laws in the form of the law of nature, and it is the duty of all humankind itself to follow them. Human beings have derived their intellect and morality from God himself and therefore should recognise the absolute authority of God over mankind. He further believed that the law of nature was based on the principles of human reason.
Apart from the aforesaid, there were several other prominent delegates of the Constitutional Convention who believed in traditional natural law and used it to draft the Constitution. This included George Washington, President of the Constitutional Convention, John Dickenson and Daniel Carroll, among others. They believed that the rights and liberties of all human beings were derived from the ultimate source of law, i.e., the law provided by the lord of Earth himself.
Now that we have understood the views of the founding fathers regarding the principles of natural law, let us try to understand how these principles were embedded into the United States Constitution.
Relationship between the Bill of Rights and natural law
Just like the US Constitution, the American Bill of Rights is also founded on the principles of natural law. It recognises multiple natural rights but also declares them as fundamental rights of every citizen. In Southcenter Joint Venture v. Nat’l Democratic Policy Comm (1989), the Supreme Court of Washington observed that the framers of the American Constitution subscribed to the principles of natural law while drafting the Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights. Now let us look into the provisions of the American Bill of Rights in detail.
This Amendment restricts the government from enacting any law that prohibits individuals in the country from professing or practising the religion of their choice, i.e., freedom of religion has been recognised. Apart from this, the following rights were guaranteed:
- Right to freedom of speech and expression
- Right to freedom of the press
- Right of peaceful assembly
- Right to seek redressal of grievances from the government
Natural law jurist Brutus stated that the right to profess any religion is a natural right and the state can neither interfere with this right nor abridge it in any manner. Samuel Stillman, an American jurist, stated that freedom of religion is an inalienable right and that neither the state nor any individual can take any action to curtail or control the same. Thus, the right to religion is a fundamental natural right that is guaranteed by this provision.
Patrick Henry, a delegate in the debates regarding the adoption of the Federal Constitution, stated that every person should have the right to speak freely on matters that affect the community as a whole, as such a right arises from the very law of nature. Similarly, Roger Sherman, while commenting on the committee reports on the creation of the Bill of Rights, stated that the right to a free press is a privileged right of every individual that is granted by God himself under the law of nature. Thus, it can be concluded that the 1st Amendment recognised and implemented fundamental natural rights.
This Amendment allowed the people of America to keep and bear arms, i.e., the people were allowed by law to carry firearms with them. This provision was inserted with the intent of maintaining a military force for the purpose of the security of the United States.
Stephen P. Halbrook, in his book titled ‘That Every Man Be Armed: The Evolution of a Constitutional Right’ stated that the right to keep and bear arms is a fundamental natural right that is available to all individuals under the law of nature. The purpose of this right was to ensure the security of oneself and society at large. He also interlinked the concept of self-preservation with the need to bear arms and stated that an individual has the fundamental natural right to preserve his life at the expense of the life of any other person, by using reasonable force against the threat being faced by him. This included the right to use a weapon in self-defence. Thus, the right to keep and bear arms under this amendment was indeed an extension of the principles of natural law.
This Amendment provides that in time of war or peace, no soldier has the right to occupy and use the residential house of any other individual for any purpose except in the manner prescribed under any law for the time being in force.
From this Amendment, it can be observed that the natural right of liberty and property has been recognised. Richard Bland, an English jurist, put forth the view that the law of nature encompasses different rights, and these rights primarily include the right to life, liberty, and property. Samuel Stillman stated that under natural law, all human beings are equal and have the right to equal freedom. No person has the right to encroach upon the freedom of another. He further opined that no person can interfere with the property of another or disturb the peaceful possession of the property by the rightful owner, as the same would be against the principles of natural law. He also condemned the individuals who would resort to such acts and stated that the community as a whole should stand against such individuals. The third President of the United States was of the view that every person has the natural right to acquire property and use it in a manner they deem fit in accordance with natural law. Thus, it can be concluded that the natural right to acquire and peacefully enjoy the property, without any interference has been recognised and implemented by this Amendment.
This Amendment sought to protect individuals from unwarranted search and seizure of their person or property. It stated that for conducting search and seizure operations on any person or property, a duly authorised warrant should be issued that has details regarding the place or person to be searched and the objects or documents that are to be seized by the officials. Such warrants should be issued only if proper justification is provided for the same by the officials under oath.
This Amendment has its roots in the natural right of privacy that is provided to every individual under the law of nature. Natural law provides individuals with equal freedoms and this freedom includes the right to conduct their affairs privately. Multiple US courts have held that the right to privacy has its foundation in natural law. The Supreme Court of Michigan in Weeren v. Evening News Ass’n (1967) observed that the right to privacy is derived from natural law and that individuals are at liberty to live a life of privacy. In Norman v. City of Las Vegas (1947), the Nevada Supreme Court observed that the right to privacy originates from natural law and that this right is absolute in nature. As to the rights against unlawful search and seizure, the Third Circuit Court of Pennsylvania in Zimmermann v. Wilson (1936) observed that searching any place without a just cause is a violation of the natural law of conducting one’s affairs in privacy. Thus, it can be concluded that the natural right to privacy has been recognised and implemented by this Amendment.
This Amendment incorporated multiple rights that form the core of the justice system as we know it today. The rights guaranteed under this Amendment have been enumerated below:
- No person shall be held liable for any crime unless he is charged by an appropriate court and is tried by following the due process of law.
- The rule of double jeopardy: no person shall be convicted of the same crime more than once.
- The rule of self-incrimination: No person shall be forced to act as a witness against himself during any criminal proceedings being initiated against him or any other person.
- The rights to life, liberty and property cannot be deprived by any action of the state without following the due process of law.
- The state shall not acquire any property for the purpose of public use unless just compensation has been paid to the owner of the property for such acquisition.
As to the right to life, the Supreme Court of Iowa in Stokes v. Scott County (1859) observed that the right to life is a fundamental right that is secured by natural law and it cannot be taken away by any man-made law. James Madison, a delegate in the debates about the American Bill of Rights, stated that the roots of the right to liberty can be traced back to the law of God himself, i.e., the law of nature. He further stated that equality in freedom under natural law provides every individual with an equal right to liberty as well. The rule of self-incrimination is based on the natural right of self-preservation, i.e., no person should be compelled to perform an act that may lead to him compromising his life or liberty. Thus, it can be concluded that the natural right to life, liberty, property and self-preservation has been recognised and implemented by this Amendment.
This Amendment calls for a speedy and public trial in criminal cases to ensure that justice is not delayed. It also provides that in all criminal cases, the accused has the right to seek a trial by jury. The jurisdiction to try the accused is provided to the district court of the state where the offence has been committed. Further, the accused was also granted the following rights:
- Right to be informed about the charges levelled against him.
- Right to present and cross-examine witnesses.
- Right to seek the assistance of counsel to represent his case.
This Amendment dealt with the right to be tried by a jury. It provided that if the value of a suit was in excess of $20, then the defendant should be tried before a jury.
Both Amendments VI and VII can be read parallelly, keeping in mind the common object, i.e., the right to be tried by a jury. Richard H. Lee, one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution, stated that the right to be tried before a jury is a natural right. However, under the American system, this right is not deemed a natural right. During the debates on the American Bill of Rights, James Madison was of the view that trial by jury could not be considered a natural right. He further added that this right is essential to secure justice for the community at large and also to ensure the liberty of all individuals. He also regarded the right to be tried by a jury as important as other natural rights, but also added that this right could be altered or abolished by the legislature if required. Thus, although there are conflicting opinions on whether the right to be tried by a jury is a natural right, this right still remains an essential right guaranteed by the US Constitution, and any person who is charged with a criminal offence for which he may be imprisoned for a term of 6 months or more has the right to seek a trial by jury.
This Amendment dealt with the imposition of unreasonable amounts for bail or as fines. It also prohibited the imposition of unreasonable punishments on individuals. This right also can be traced back to the natural right of life and liberty and the principle that the state shall not interfere with these rights unless under a procedure established by law.
This Amendment provides that even if the Constitution does not expressly grant some rights to individuals, it should not be interpreted that such rights are not available to individuals. What can be inferred from this Amendment is that the law of nature and the rights that flow from it have been recognised as rights that are impliedly available to all individuals irrespective of any express mention of the same in the US Constitution or any other statute. The only condition precedent to it is that such rights should not be expressly barred by the US Constitution. This Amendment is a prime example of the recognition of the principles of natural law and its enforcement in American society.
This Amendment provides that any power that has not been delegated to the national government by the Constitution vests with the state government or the people if not expressly prohibited under the Constitution. The roots of this amendment can be traced back to the principle of subsidiarity under natural law. Due to the federal structure of the US Constitution, the national government does not have absolute power over the functioning of state governments, and it is the state government and the local bodies thereunder that perform tasks of public welfare and enforce law and order at the local levels.
The United States Declaration of Independence
The US Declaration of Independence was a document that raised the issues faced by American citizens against British colonial policies. This document raised allegations against the Crown for violating the English Constitution, enacting unlawful legislation, and oppressing the minorities in the country. It is pertinent to note that the drafters of this Declaration embedded the principles of natural law to support their arguments. One of the founding fathers and the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was the pioneer in drafting the Declaration. While doing so, he time and again resorted to the violation of natural rights by the Crown. He stated that all human beings are created as equals by God, and God himself has provided all individuals with some inalienable rights. These rights are provided under the law of nature and include the rights to life and liberty and the right to pursue happiness. He further added that it is the duty of the government to act for the benefit of the people and help them secure these natural rights. In the event that the government fails to do so, the people have the right to demand the abolishment of the government and to form a new one.
Thus, it can be observed that the principles of traditional natural law were invoked by Thomas Jefferson to allege the violations of natural rights by the Crown and to justify the American Revolution for removing the Crown and establishing a new government.
Application of natural law in the US Constitution
Establishment of a limited government
The meaning of the term ‘limited government’ itself can be traced back to the principles of natural law. The natural law of tradition provides that the law of nature is an eternal law provided by God and that no man-made law can override or repeal it. Thus, the legislative government also does not have the power to override the law of nature, thus limiting the powers of the government. This principle was recognised and is embedded in the United States Constitution.
Firstly, let us discuss the provisions governing the three organs of American democracy, i.e., the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Article 1 of the US Constitution provides that all the powers granted to the legislature under the Constitution shall vest in the elected government. It is to be noted that the powers vested in the elected government are limited by this provision. Any powers which are beyond the scope of the Constitution cannot be exercised by the legislature. This implies the recognition of a supreme law and the duties of human beings thereunder. Article 2 of the US Constitution vests the executive power of the country in the duly elected American President. However, this provision also lists the powers that can be exercised by the President, thereby limiting his rights and not providing him with unwarranted power. Article 3 of the US Constitution empowers the judiciary to deal with specified categories of cases. Thus, the jurisdiction of courts is also limited to the extent prescribed by the Constitution.
This application of the principle of limited government can also be seen in the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances that are embedded in the US Constitution. At the time of ratifying the US Constitution, the founding fathers put forth the view that each organ of the state should act in such a manner as to counteract the ambitious actions of individual organs so that they do not act ultra vires to the US Constitution. The principle of checks and balances ensures that every organ of the state acts within its specified boundaries and does not encroach on the powers and duties of one another. Thus, this principle ensures the sustainability of a government that is limited by power.
The principle of subsidiarity
St. Thomas Aquinas gave a wide interpretation of the principle of subsidiarity. He stated that before the existence of a civil society that is governed by man-made laws, there existed a society that was based on relationships between individual families with their members and with other families in the society. These families can act together to maintain a peaceful society built on the principles of justice and equity. However, he posed a question regarding a scenario wherein these families, individually or as a group, fail to maintain a society that is peaceful and just, thereby leading to disorder in the society. The answer to this question was the establishment of a government that acted within the principles of the law of nature and provided for the establishment of a civil society that was peaceful and just. He believed that an independent government was the best possible way to meet the needs of a balanced society and that this government would be better equipped and more efficient than individuals, families, or private institutions to meet this goal. This, according to him, was the principle of subsidiarity.
The US Constitution follows the principle of subsidiarity as provided under the law of nature. According to this principle, the elected government should undertake only those actions that cannot be performed by the family or private associations in a better or more efficient manner. Furthermore, whenever there arises a need for the government to perform a specific task, the task should be performed by the most local unit of the government that can efficiently perform the task. The existence of this principle in the US Constitution can be observed from the division of powers between the national and state governments. The national government does not have absolute power over the functioning of state governments, and it is the state government and the local bodies thereunder that perform tasks of public welfare and enforce law and order at the local levels. The 10th Amendment to the US Constitution further reinforced this principle by stating that any power that has not been delegated to the national government by the Constitution vests with the state government or the people if not expressly prohibited under the Constitution. The Federal Structure of the US Constitution is another example of the application of the principle of subsidiarity. The Constitution does not regulate the rights of every state government and provides them with the authority to draft state-level constitutions and other legislation to govern the affairs of the state at a local level.
Natural rights can be defined as the very basic and fundamental rights that are guaranteed to all human beings, irrespective of whether such rights are recognised or provided under any law or custom. These rights originate from the law of nature and are deemed absolute, prohibiting the state from interfering with such rights. One of the most basic natural rights embedded in the US Constitution is the right to freedom and liberty. Several jurists, including the likes of John Locke, Jonas Clark, and Samuel Stillman, were of the view that all human beings are deemed to be equal under the law of nature and, thus, have equal rights to freedom and liberty. They further say that no human being can infringe upon the natural rights of another since all human beings are creations of God and God has vested every human being with the same rights. Other natural rights guaranteed by the US Constitution include freedom of speech and press, freedom to profess any religion, the right to life, the right to self-defence, the right to assemble peacefully, etc. Notably, the right to reputation was also deemed as a natural right that emerged from the US Constitution in the case of Respublica vs. Oswald (1788) by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Several other rights are guaranteed to American citizens by restricting the powers of the state. The 1st Amendment to the US Constitution is the primary example of the same, which bars the government from enacting laws governing certain specified areas of law. The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution bars the states from denying individuals equal protection under the laws and also makes it mandatory that every person should be tried by following due process as established under law. Thus, through these provisions, the US Constitution protects the natural rights of every individual by prohibiting the state from interfering with the same.
Judicial opinion on natural law
Natural law has been time and again related to the fundamental right of life and liberty. These rights have been recognised as the basic rights which allow a human being to reach his full potential. The Supreme Court of Connecticut in the case of State v. Joyner (1993) observed that natural law was the foundation for the enactment of the Connecticut State Constitution and the state’s common law. Natural law was defined as the reasoning based on which people adopted constitutions. The Supreme Court of Alabama in McLendon v. State (1912) observed that natural law cannot be overridden by civil laws and that natural law acts as an implied limitation on the state’s power to legislate.
Laws against slavery
The most basic element of natural law is the right of a person to pursue a life filled with happiness. However, the rights of life and liberty guaranteed under natural law were severely affected by the advent of slavery in America from the very early days. Let us now try to understand the judicial view on slavery in the context of natural law.
One of the significant cases in this regard was the case of Anderson v. Poindexter (1856) wherein the Supreme Court of Ohio observed that the act of slavery was in violation of the rules of reason and the principles of natural law and that the slave trade was in violation of the law of nature. It further noted that slavery was termed illegal under the American Constitution and, thus, the act of slavery is ultra vires to the Constitution.
The Supreme Court of Virginia was the first court to discuss slavery in the context of natural law in the case of Pleasants vs. Pleasants (1981). While discussing the concept of slavery, the Court equated human beings to children of mother nature and observed that nature, which is free in itself, gives birth to children, i.e., human beings, and thus, human beings are also deemed to be free. The Court further noted that this freedom stems from the principles of natural law. Also, in the case of Hunter v. Fulcher (1829), the Supreme Court of Virginia tried to establish a link between natural law and the citizenship of slaves. The Court observed that when a slave is freed and is brought to a free state to reside as a free person, he is deemed to have acquired the citizenship of that state based on the principles of natural law. In the case of McElvain vs. Mudd (1870), the Supreme Court of Alabama observed that no person can be deprived of the proceeds of their labor and that doing so in the name of slavery is a violation of the principles of natural law. Also, the liberty of any individual cannot be deprived in the name of slavery because the right to life and liberty are basic rights that are guaranteed under the principles of natural law.
Principles of equity
The term ‘equity’ is often confused with equality. However, there is a thin line of difference between the two. Whereas the concept of equality talks about giving equal rights and opportunities to all people, the concept of equity recognises that equality among the unequal is unjustified and aims to provide adequate rights and opportunities to people so that they can achieve an equal outcome. One of the first American cases that related the concept of equity to natural law was Vellinga vs. Vellinga (1989). Herein, Justice Henderson stated that even though there are rules of law and statutes which judges should follow while making decisions, if there is a need for any action to be undertaken by a judge on the basis of equity, he should do the same. Any equitable action undertaken by a judge finds its basis in the principles of natural law rather than in any established statute or prior judicial opinions. Natural law helps the judge to decide his course of action based on what is good for the parties involved. It also aids the judge in identifying unjust laws and avoiding their application while deciding cases.
In several states in the USA, the authority to act in an equitable manner has been granted to judges in the absence of any governing statute in the area of law concerned. Section 3955 of Chapter 50 of the United States Code of Service, the courts have been granted the power to provide relief based on the principles of equity. The Idaho Supreme Court in Climax v. Snake River Oncology of Eastern Idaho (2010) defined the term equity under the aforesaid statute as the spirit and habit of fairness, justness, and right dealing.
In People ex rel. Attorney Gen. v. Folsom (1855), the Supreme Court of California examined a question wherein the property of a deceased son, who was a Mexican citizen, could be inherited by his mother, who was an American citizen. The issue arose because of the absence of any law that specifically dealt with this issue. However, the court noted that even in the absence of such a law, natural law will prevail, and thus, the mother can inherit her son’s property. In Jordan v. Jordan, Wentworth & Co. (1924), the Supreme Court of Washington was dealing with a case wherein assets were to be divided between creditors due to the bankruptcy of the defendant. The issue, however, was that there was no law which specified the manner of division of such assets. The court herein called for an equitable division of the assets and held that such a manner of division finds its roots in the concept of natural law. The Supreme Court of Missouri in Jim vs. State (1832) was dealing with the question of whether a judge should be disqualified from hearing a case in which he has a personal interest. Although there was no law in place for the disqualification of judges in such cases, the court observed that it is against natural equity and the moral sense of mankind to allow any person to judge a case wherein he has an interest in the subject matter involved.
St. Thomas Aquinas stated that a person’s inclination to love and care for his offspring, educate the offspring, and provide them with the best possible environment for their growth can be traced back to the principles of natural law. He further stated that it was natural law that guided parents in teaching their children the rules of right conduct and that it was the duty of the parents to care for their children was imposed on them under natural law. The courts have also recognised the relationship between natural law and family law in various judgements. In the case of Rogers v. Yellowstone Park Co. (1974), the Supreme Court of Idaho observed that families are informal units of the government that are founded on the principles of natural life. Further, in Bickley v. Carter (1935), the Supreme Court of Arkansas held that marriage is a contract that is founded on the principles of natural law. A similar observation was made by the California Supreme Court in the case of Millar v. Millar (1917), wherein it was observed that the rights and duties of marriage are founded on the principles of natural law.
Now let us look at a few cases wherein the parent’s duty toward their offspring was explored by the courts. In the case of Goodrich v. Goodrich (1870), the Supreme Court of Alabama defined marriage as a contract between a man and a woman wherein they acquire rights in the person of the other for mutual happiness, the production of children, and educating them. These rights, in turn, are derived from the principles of natural law. In the case of State ex rel. Harmon v. Utterback (1959), the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia observed that the right to custody of a child claimed by a parent arises out of the natural law principles of caring for the offspring. This was further explained in the case of Ex parte Sullivan, (1981), wherein the Supreme Court of Alabama observed that the law of nature imposes a duty on the parents to take care of the child and provides them with the authority to bring up the child in a proper manner. It further noted that the authority of parents to provide for a proper upbringing for their children is a fundamental natural right.
The Court, on multiple occasions, has also looked into the duty of the parents to provide maintenance for their children. The Supreme Court of Ohio in the case of Pretzinger v. Pretzinger (1887) observed that the duty of a parent to provide for the maintenance of his children is a duty imposed on the parent under the principles of natural law and the parent is under the obligation to live up to this duty to the best of his or her ability. In the case of Harper v. Caskin (1979), the Supreme Court of Arkansas observed that the duty of the parent to support his child and provide child maintenance is not just a duty arising out of natural law but is also the legal and moral duty of the parent. These duties are owed both to the child and to society.
It is not just care and maintenance, the courts have opined that the right to education is also a fundamental right of the child that originates from the principles of natural law. In the case of Zorach v. Clauson (1951), the Supreme Court of New York observed that parents are bound by natural law to educate their children, and they are also given the right to control the education in the manner best suited for the child. In furtherance of the same, the California Supreme Court in Serrano v. Priest (1971) observed that natural law provides for the education of children even if it comes at the expense of the public or the state.
As mentioned earlier in the case of State vs. Joyner, natural law is seen as the foundation for common law as well. The courts in the USA have time and again relied on principles of common law that have been derived from natural law to govern contractual and commercial relationships between parties. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Clark v. Slate Valley R. Co. (1890) observed that natural law governs contractual relationships, including those of partnerships, and it directs the partners to conduct themselves in a fair manner. Natural law guides the partners to conduct the business within the scope of the partnership.
The Supreme Court of West Virginia in the case of Farmers’ Bank v. Smith & Co. (1885) observed that, as per the principles of natural law, third parties who represent themselves as partners of a partnership firm, even though they do not hold such a position, for the purpose of obtaining some form of benefit, will be liable to make good any loss caused to any person that arises out of such a false representation. The Court of Appeals of Maryland in the case of Thomas vs. Green (1869) gave an extended interpretation of the principles of natural law. It states that if any person, who is not a partner, represents himself as a partner to any person and offers to fulfil any obligation, he should meet the obligation and ensure that such person is not defrauded due to his false representation.
While dealing with contractual obligations, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in the case of May vs. Breed (1851) observed that in contractual relationships, any moral obligation that the parties have towards each other has its roots in natural law and that the parties should fulfil such moral obligations even after the legal obligations under the contract cease to exist. The court further stated that natural law binds all parties to fulfil all their obligations through the principles of reason and good conscience.
St. Thomas Aquinas stated that the law governing the preservation of human life falls under the ambit of natural law. The courts in the USA have followed the same and have applied the principles of natural law while deciding criminal cases. In the case of State of New Jersey vs. Monahan (1954), Justice Oliphant observed that the state has the right to override the right to life under natural law in only two circumstances. Firstly, for the defence of the state and, secondly, for effecting punishments for crimes.
The Supreme Court of Colorado in Taylor vs. Welle (1960) observed that the right to life is an absolute right and that this right has its foundation in natural law. The legislature cannot make any law to abridge or impair this right. In the case of the State of West Virginia vs. Hobbs (1981), Justice Neely observed that the violation of natural law by any person shows his utter disregard for human life and establishes mens rea for committing an act of murder. In People of New York vs. Kendall Parker (1868), the Court of Appeals of New York held that natural law prohibits any intentional act intended to cause harm or injure any person, whether known or unknown.
The Supreme Court of North Carolina, in the case of the State of North Carolina vs. Norman (1989), viewed the concept of self-defence parallelly with natural law principles. It held that the right to kill in self-defence is a right based on necessity and reason and that it is an act undertaken to preserve one’s own life. Thus, this right falls under the scope of natural law. The Court of Appeals of Kentucky in the case of Brumback vs. Commonwealth (1885) made a similar observation and held that the right to kill in self-defence is inherently a natural right if it is the only way by which an individual can ensure the safety of his life. Reliance on this principle may vary based on the circumstances of each case. Self-defence was further related to the natural right of self-preservation, i.e., at the time of need or danger, an individual has the right under natural law to save his life at the expense of the life of the aggressor. However, this right is subject to the rule of reason.
The right of self-preservation has been examined by courts in different contexts as well. In the case of Harman vs. State (2008), the Supreme Court of Tennessee observed that when the defendant, who was under suspicion for his involvement in a criminal offence, acted based on the principle of self-preservation under natural law when he participated in the conference that police officials were having to investigate the crimes against him. In the case of Bennett v. Standard Acc. Ins. Co. (1922), the Supreme Court of Missouri observed that in a case where the reason for the death of an individual cannot be ascertained as death or suicide, the burden of proof lies on the insurer to prove that the death was caused by suicide. This is because the court presumes that every person has a reason to love his life, and due to the principle of self-preservation under natural law, the presumption arises that no person will take his own life. In the case of Peterson vs. Fargo-Moorhead Street Railroad Co. (1917), the Supreme Court of North Dakota observed that it is a general presumption under natural law that every person will take steps to preserve his body against any form of injury or pain that may lead to him not fully enjoying his body in the future.
Decline of natural law in the United States
One of the primary reasons for the decline in the application of natural law principles in modern-day jurisprudence is the reliance on precedents. At the beginning of the American judicial system, heavy reliance was placed on the principles of natural law and its application. However, over time, with the increase in the number of judicial opinions, advocates resorted to relying on precedents to prove their points rather than resorting to natural law at its very core. In his book The Decline of Natural Law, Stuart Banner makes a significant observation in this regard. He stated that by the early 19th century, the number of case reports was around 500 volumes, and at the beginning of the 20th century, this number had increased to over 8,000 volumes. He believed that this was the reason why lawyers were more reliant on precedents than the principles of natural law itself. Another reason suggested by him for the decline of natural law was the multiple interpretations given to it for justifying one’s own cause, i.e., advocates had started to interpret natural law in a fashion best suited for them. This led to the issue regarding the efficiency of natural law principles while forming judicial opinions.
In the case of Bowers vs. Hardwick (1986), the US Supreme Court observed that the judicial opinion of the Court is at risk when reliance is placed on judge-made constitutional law. What can be inferred from this judgment is that although precedent-based law has become significant in the judicial system, it cannot be relied on at all times as judges, like all human beings, are capable of committing mistakes that can lead to misinterpretation of the Constitution itself. Thus, there is a need for a renewed awareness of natural law so that the judicial system can appreciate, understand, and apply the rights guaranteed under the Constitution in an efficient manner.
From the above discussion, one can conclude that the mandate of man-made law is connected to the principles of natural law in one way or another. The very process of enacting new laws and adopting them is driven by the rule of reason, which has its foundation in natural law. The courts have time and again sought aid from the rules of natural law to fill the lacuna in the ability to do justice in a fair and equitable manner under the existing legal regime. The general principles of natural law aid judges by providing them with a proper direction to do justice. However, judges must still exercise their reason to determine how the principles of natural law should be applied on a case-to-case basis.
- LEAD ARTICLE: A Thomistic Perspective on Natural Law Reasoning in the Supreme Courts, 45 Ohio N.U.L. Rev. 301
- ARTICLE: Natural Rights, Natural Law, and American Constitutions., 102 Yale L.J. 907
- SYMPOSIUM: Natural Law v. Natural Rights: What Are They? How Do They Differ? The Association of American Law Schools, Jurisprudence Section — 1997: DO NATURAL RIGHTS DERIVE FROM NATURAL LAW?, 20 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 695
- ARTICLE: Natural Law as a “Work of Reason”: Understanding the Metaphysics of Participated Theonomy, 55 Am. J. Juris. 41
- ARTICLE: A New Natural Law Reading of the Constitution, 78 La. L. Rev. 877
Students of Lawsikho courses regularly produce writing assignments and work on practical exercises as a part of their coursework and develop themselves in real-life practical skills.
LawSikho has created a telegram group for exchanging legal knowledge, referrals, and various opportunities. You can click on this link and join: