Categoricalism and Balancing in First and Second Amendment Analysis
The least discussed element of District of Columbia v. Heller might ultimately be the most important: the battle between the majority and dissent over the use of categoricalism and balancing in the construction of constitutional doctrine. In Heller, Justice Scalia’s categoricalism essentially prevailed over Justice Breyer’s balancing approach. But as the opinion itself demonstrates, Second Amendment categoricalism raises extremely difficult and still-unanswered questions about how to draw and justify the lines between protected and unprotected “Arms,” people, and arms-bearing purposes. At least until balancing tests appear in Second Amendment doctrine—as they almost inevitably will—the future of the Amendment will depend almost entirely on the placement and clarity of these categories. And unless the Court better identifies the core values of the Second Amendment, it will be difficult to give the categories any principled justification.
Heller is not the first time the Court has debated the merits of categorization and balancing, nor are Justices Scalia and Breyer the tests’ most famous champions. Decades ago, Justices Black and Frankfurter waged a similar battle in the First Amendment context, and the echoes of their struggle continue to reverberate in free speech doctrine. But whereas the categorical view triumphed in Heller, Justice Frankfurter and the First Amendment balancers won most of their battles. As a result, modern First Amendment doctrine is a patchwork of categorical and balancing tests, with a tendency toward the latter. The First and Second Amendments are often presumed to be close cousins, and courts, litigants, and scholars will almost certainly continue to turn to the First Amendment for guidance in developing a Second Amendment standard of review. But while free speech doctrine may be instructive, it also tells a cautionary tale: Above all, it suggests that unless the Court better identifies the core values of the Second Amendment, the Second Amendment’s future will be even murkier than the First Amendment’s past.
This Article draws the Amendments together, using the development of categoricalism and balancing tests in First Amendment doctrine to describe and predict what Heller’s categoricalism means for the present and future of Second Amendment doctrine. It argues that the Court’s categorical line drawing in Heller creates intractable difficulties for Second Amendment doctrine and theory and that the majority’s categoricalism neither reflects nor enables a clear view of the Amendment’s core values, whatever they may be.