A generation ago, Harvard law professor Frank Michelman advanced an influential and provocative vein of scholarship theorizing the content and justiciability of constitutional welfare rights. Michelman's writings, which endure as the most insightful and imaginative work in this area, sought to anchor the Supreme Court's welfare rights jurisprudence in a comprehensive theory of distributive justice, in particular John Rawls's theory of justice as fairness.
In this Article, I reappraise Michelman's seminal work and argue that his effort to ground the adjudication of welfare rights in a comprehensive moral theory ultimately confronts intractable problems of democratic legitimacy. My thesis is that the legitimacy of judicial recognition of welfare rights depends on socially situated modes of reasoning that appeal not to transcendent moral principles for an ideal society, but to the culturally and historically contingent meanings of particular social goods in our own society. Informed by the central themes of Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice, I argue that judicial recognition of welfare rights is best conceived as an act of interpreting the shared understandings of particular welfare goods as they are manifested in our institutions, laws, and evolving social practices. On this account, the existence of a welfare right depends on democratic instantiation in the first instance, typically in the form of a legislated program, with the judiciary generally limited to an interstitial role. Further, because the shared understandings of a given society are ultimately subject to democratic revision, courts cannot fix the existence or contours of a welfare right for all time. So conceived, justiciable welfare rights reflect the contingent character of our society's collective judgments rather than the tidy logic of a comprehensive moral theory.
In developing my thesis, I consider two objections: first, that the judicial role I propose is inherently conservative, and second, that it carries an intolerable risk that judges, in the name of interpreting society's values, will impose their own values on society. Using various Supreme Court opinions as examples, I show that both dangers can be avoided when courts employ constitutional doctrine in a dialogic process with the legislature to ensure that the scope of welfare provision democratically reflects our social understandings.