Liability Rules for Constitutional Rights: The Case of Mass Detentions

Eugene Kontorovich*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    10 Scopus citations


    Constitutional law assumes that rights should always be protected by property rules - that is, the government can only take them with the individual's consent. This Article extends to constitutional law the insights of Calabresi and Melamed's famous article on property and liability rules. Whether rights should be protected by property rules or liability rules depends on the transaction costs of negotiating a transfer of rights. As transaction costs rise, liability rules become more attractive. This Article shows that liability rules can have an important role in constitutional law. Using mass detentions in national security emergencies as a case study, it shows that property rule protection of individual rights sometimes leads to perverse and inefficient results. While the government has repeatedly resorted to mass detentions in emergencies, the Court has never blocked such measures. This is a perverse result of constitutional law's insistence on property rule protection even when transaction costs of transferring liberty rights become extraordinarily high. Holding that a policy violates rights would require, under a property rule, enjoining potentially vital security measures. The Court tends to be unwilling to impose such costs on society. Thus it simply avoids finding that mass detentions violate rights. This creates groups of uncompensated victims, who are often members of vulnerable ethnic minorities. It also stunts and distorts the development of constitutional law. In some unusual but extraordinarily important situations liability rules may be preferable to property rules. The former will be the best way to protect constitutional rights under the same circumstances that make them preferable in private law - where high transaction costs prevent efficient rights-transfers under a property rule. Switching to liability rules in mass detention situations can, counterintuitively, result in greater redress for detainees, as well as deterring detentions and preserving the integrity and predictability of substantive law. The transaction cost analysis developed in this Article has implications that extend beyond mass detentions to a variety of other constitutional issues, such as coercive public health measures and military conscription.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)755-833
    Number of pages79
    JournalStanford Law Review
    Issue number4
    StatePublished - Feb 1 2004

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Law

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