The Supreme Court has acknowledged that "the Due Process Clause, like its forebear in the Magna Carta, was 'intended to secure the individual from the arbitrary exercise of the powers of government'...to prevent governmental power from being 'used for purposes of oppression.'"1 Historically, Magna Carta was aimed a·t limiting the power of the king. Today, substantive due process is invoked to challenge arbitrary deprivations of life, liberty, and property by officials, such as police officers, jail guards, public-school educators, public employers, and members of zoning boards. However, the Supreme Court has emasculated its efficacy as a limitation on executive power. In 1998, in County of Sacramento v. Lewis, it held that the "criteria to identify what is fatally arbitrary differ depending on whether it is legislation or a specific act of a governmental officer that is at issue."2 Whereas legislative enactments are subject to varying levels of scrutiny depending on the nature of the rights at stake, the Court asserted that only the most egregious executive misconduct, that which "shocks the conscience," will be actionable.3
Since 1998, Lewis has created significant confusion and division in the appellate courts, severely restricting the ability of detainees, students, government employees, and landowners, to bring substantive due process challenges to the arbitrary exercise of power. Some circuits have required that litigants prove that executive misconduct both infringe on a fundamental right and shock the conscience. Because neither employment nor property are regarded as fundamental rights, most allegations of arbitrary treatment brought by government employees and landowners are dismissed. Other appellate courts allow substantive due process challenges to the deprivation of non-fundamental property or liberty interests only where the litigant demonstrates the inadequacy of state law remedies, thereby permitting the vagaries of state tort law to determine the fate of constitutional claims. Further, the appellate courts have interpreted the "shocks the conscience'' test to impose a draconian standard, mandating, for example, that detainees demonstrate unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain or that students prove intentional malice or sadism in order to challenge excessive, unwarranted corporal punishment.
The thesis of this Article is that the 'shocks the conscience" test, which is founded on a false dichotomy between substantive due process challenges to executive and legislative action, should be rejected. First, it is historically untenable. The core concern of Magna Carta, the source of substantive due process, was to limit executive abuse of power. This was the understanding of those who framed and ratified the Due Process Clause. Thus, it is counterintuitive to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to challenge executive misconduct. Second, Lewis rests on shaky precedent and has not been consistently adhered to by the Supreme Court in subsequent cases. Third, the concern cited by the Court to justify a more stringent standard for executive action fear of converting § 1983 substantive due process claims into a "font of tort law" is unfounded and exaggerated. Section 1983 should not drive constitutional interpretation, and immunity defenses already significantly insulate government officials and entities sued for § 1983 damages. Fourth, the numerous circuit conflicts demonstrate that the test has proven to be an unworkable analytical tool.
To restore substantive due process as a meaningful safeguard against arbitrary abuse of government power, Lewis should be overturned. Recognizing, however, the concerns of subjectivity and unbridled discretion that have surrounded the substantive due process conundrum, this Article proposes a new test with specific criteria, extrapolated from various Supreme Court and appellate court decisions, to guide courts in determining when government misconduct should be viewed as an unconstitutional abuse of power.
1 Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331 (1986) (citations omitted).
2 County of Sacramento v. Lewis; 523 U.S. 833, 846 (1998).
Rosalie Berger Levinson, Time to Bury the Shocks the Conscience Test, 13 Chap. L. Rev. 307 (2010).