“Who’s Responsible for Constitutional Rights,” Colloquium with Notre Dame’s Christina Bambrick


As part of the Kinder Institute’s Friday Colloquium Series, University of Notre Dame Assistant Professor of Political Science Christina Bambrick will examine cases from U.S. and South African courts in presenting her research on the tradeoffs and politics involved when constitutional rights are applied horizontally to create obligations of private actors (see abstract below). Email Thomas Kane, KaneTC@missouri.edu, to be added to the list of people who get Zoom links for events on the day that they are occurring.


The choice to recognize a right comes with tradeoffs. A right to privacy might run up against national security, for example, or equality might run up against religious liberty. In much the same way, we may consider the tradeoffs involved when rights are applied “horizontally” to create obligations of private actors. What do constitutional framers and jurists stand to gain (for themselves or the polity) in holding private actors accountable for rights? Moreover, what might they lose in introducing new obligations to these traditionally-insulated spaces? This talk considers the tradeoffs of introducing horizontal rights in cases ranging from the United States to South Africa. The point of this exercise is not to be cynical or positivistic in accounting for rights protections, but rather to recognize that such constitutional choices result from diverse considerations and inputs specific to the place. The tradeoffs that may come in applying rights horizontally seem particularly steep, moreover, insofar as they implicate pre-political entities in constitutional projects. Focusing on horizontal rights thus offers a salient window into understanding the politics behind constitution-making and rights protections. Ultimately, a kind of Burkean lesson emerges, that rights relationships are not ready-made, but proceed from the particular debates, aspirations, and discourses of a place. While certain crucial rights may indeed be self-evident, in Jefferson’s perennial words, particular applications of rights are not devoid of choices and, therefore, of politics.

Christina Bambrick is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. She studies constitutional theory and development. Her research and teaching interests range from American and comparative constitutionalism to republican theory and the history of political thought. She is currently writing a book on the horizontal application of rights to non-state actors in comparative context. Before coming to Notre Dame, Bambrick taught at Clemson University. She received her doctorate in Government from the University of Texas at Austin where she was recognized for Excellence in Teaching by the College of Liberal Arts.