Christina Bambrick on Where Courts and the Constitution Collide

In any constitutional republic, individual rights can be difficult to untangle. Christina Bambrick — an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame— studies the emergence of horizontal rights, or the process by which courts assign constitutional duties to private actors. “Traditionally only state actors had duties under the constitution,” says Bambrick, “but more and more, courts apply constitutional duties to the private sphere as well.”

As a graduate student, Bambrick first became exposed to IHS through the Hayek Fund for Scholars, which supported her travel to multiple political science conferences across the country.

Christina Bambrick
Christina Bambrick

She decided to continue her involvement with IHS by becoming a Humane Studies Fellow and joining the mentorship program. Most recently, she received the IHS Sabbatical Research Fellowship, which allowed her to conduct interviews in Germany and ultimately to complete her manuscript. She has also attended an IHS Manuscript Workshop, further helping her to finalize her manuscript.

I’ve received tremendous support from individual people within IHS and the organization itself. IHS has helped me get to where I am today because of its great institutional mission and an understanding of what it takes to be successful in academia.

– Christina Bambrick

In her forthcoming book, Bambrick examines instances of horizontal rights in countries like India, Germany, South Africa, and the United States. Her research demonstrates how horizontal rights can be understood as a republican intervention in the tradition of liberal constitutionalism. This is because republican theory puts greater emphasis on public duties, while classical liberalism emphasizes the need to preserve a separate private sphere.

For example, Bambrick cites a court case in South Africa in which a landlord was required to provide his tenant a minimum standard of living as defined in the South African Constitution. Housing is a salient issue in South Africa’s history, and the ruling asserts that landlords provide this minimum standard of living to fulfill the constitutional commitment to human dignity.

In her research, Bambrick seeks to understand how horizontal rights mark a departure from the common conception of rights found within classical liberalism, among other political traditions. “To make sense of this newer understanding of rights,” Bambrick states, “it seems we would have to bring in concepts from a different political tradition, namely the republican tradition.”

In another project in progress, Bambrick and coauthor Maureen Stobb explore the possibility that courts assign blame to private actors through the application of horizontal rights. They argue that horizontal rights may be harnessed in ways that prop up political elites while potentially failing to protect the constitutional rights of the most vulnerable.

What motives me in my research is how to make a country of different people work. My new book looks at cases in which countries have felt compelled to bring the constitutional standard to bear across the polity. These kinds of questions are essential to examine when considering what constitutional protections do serve the people and protect their rights.

– Christina Bambrick

Following the publication of her first book, Bambrick plans on writing a second in which she will examine political systems that include accommodations for groups from diverse backgrounds in their constitutions. Although different from her research on horizontal rights, she sees this work as an extension of it.  Both topics fit comfortably within her research agenda to better understand how different political systems and constitutions work to respect individual rights amid difference.

Throughout her experiences with IHS, Bambrick has connected with other scholars who have helped her hone her research and spark new ideas. She adds that “the opportunities IHS provides are crucial in shaping research in ways that make the greatest impact.”

She continues to be a regular presence at IHS events and programs, constantly contributing her scholarly energy to addressing pressing research questions. Since those early days at IHS events, Bambrick hopes to offer the same kind of advice and mentorship given to her when she was a graduate student: “I really hope to pay it forward.  There are few organizations like IHS devoted to facilitating graduate student success.”

If her early contributions to the scholarly community are any indication, Bambrick proves that the student-to-scholar pipeline is more than just a linear story, but one borne out of community, respect for ideas, and a mutual curiosity that only grows brighter as ideas are explored.

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

60 Years Advancing the Ideas of the Good Society

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