Catherine Ross Testifies on the Hill

GW Law Professor Catherine J. Ross offered expert testimony at a hearing on H.J. Res. 50.

Constitutional and family law expert Professor Catherine J. Ross testified on Capitol Hill in September, addressing House Judiciary lawmakers at a hearing on a proposed constitutional amendment on parental rights. 

Professor Ross appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, offering expert testimony at a hearing on H.J. Res. 50. The proposed constitutional amendment focuses on the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children. 

In her expert testimony, Professor Ross emphasized that the Supreme Court has consistently recognized that fit parents have a constitutionally protected liberty interest, indeed a “fundamental right,” to raise their children according to their own values and judgment. There is, she explained, no “epidemic” of government intervention into families as the amendment’s proponents charge. 

She then said that some of the language in the proposal “threatens to transform the law in several respects with potentially harmful results.” The entire scheme of the amendment would be used to challenge the reach of the child welfare system. If the system for responding to child abuse and neglect needs reform, that can be accomplished by changing statutes and regulations.

Next, Professor Ross stated that the Constitution “should never be amended absent an urgent need, and there is none here.”

 “The Supreme Court has unwaveringly protected parental rights and there is no evidence that parental rights are being eroded,” she explained to lawmakers. “It is true that two sitting justices, Scalia and Thomas, have challenged the basis of parental rights doctrine. But if the reservations about precedent of two justices (or even three or four justices) were deemed to justify a constitutional amendment ‘just in case’ they were to garner a majority at some future date, the Constitution would be the size of a major metropolitan phone book instead of the pocket-size pamphlet law professors, and, I daresay, some members of Congress, carry.”

Professor Ross concluded her oral testimony by reminding Congress of the current state of families and family law in the United States: More than 40 percent of children in the U.S. today are born to parents who are not married, and each parent has an identical constitutional status. The amendment, she said, offers no guidance on how to break a tie when parents disagree, while providing that the government cannot act with respect to decisions affecting children absent a compelling interest.

Professor Ross’ new book on the First Amendment in public schools (forthcoming, Harvard University Press) will be published in 2015. She is a co-author of Contemporary Family Law (West) and has written more than 50 law articles on constitutional law, family law, and legal and policy issues concerning children.