A federal trial court judge’s clerk usually handles the prisoner petitions. When I clerked, I would read the petitions, research them, and write an order for my judge to sign deciding the case. Most of the research was in constitutional law because prison administrators have a lot of leeway in running their prisons with only their prisoners’ constitutional rights circumscribing their policies.
One day my judge refused to sign one of my drafts. The inmate in question had petitioned the court for damages after debris had allegedly hit him in the head and injured him on a work site. The prison administration was at fault, he said, because it hadn’t issued him a hard hat. My order would have permitted the case to proceed to a hearing.
My judge smiled. “There’s no constitutional right to a hard hat,” he said.
One of my students earlier this month came up with a new inalienable right. When I asked the class what rights he would add to (or specifically enumerate in) the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, he included “the right to call someplace home.”
Consider the virtues of a right to call someplace home. It’s vague, like due process or equal protection. Everyone can pay it lip service. A faction could read it as requiring the government to find housing for everyone. Another faction could hold “English only” legislation unconstitutional since it infringes on a penumbral right to speak only the language of an immigrant’s homeland. Others could weaken it, or perhaps use it in a way my student may not have intended, by discovering in it only the right to call the United States home, first holding that the government decides what “someplace” is for everyone. Some may find the right only aspirational: we are a rather nomadic people as well as a melting pot, and perhaps we feel the need for place more acutely for our relative rootlessness. And some may find it merely tautological. After all, calling someplace home sounds quintessentially unalienable.
Anyway, it’s a step up from a constitutional amendment delineating the right to a hard hat.