Thursday, March 17, 2005

Interpreting the Constitution
Sean and I have an ongoing discussion about the Supreme Court of the United States, which kind of goes like this:
Macon - They're ruining the Constitution!
Sean - Ok, but, what do you mean?
Macon - Ummm, well, see, there's this stuff I've read, and, well, just trust me on this one.

And really, my position comes from all the dinner table conversations with Dad and reading First Things, both of whom's opinions are far more educated than mine and whom I respect very much. But the reasoning is complicated and I haven't "owned" it enough to be able to articulate to Sean's satisfaction. Sean, as a thoughtful person, has an appropriately high benchmark for "satisfaction". :-)

But now, it's all over, because Justice Scalia himself explains what I've been thinking all along here. Three Bad Fingers transcribed a speech Justice Scalia delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on March 14, 2005, and broadcast by C-Span. Seriously, you should read the whole thing, including the Q&A which followed the speech and which also is transcribed by Three Bad Fingers.

Some favorite quotes
from the text of the speech:
I am one of a small number of judges, small number of anybody: judges, professors, lawyers; who are known as originalists. Our manner of interpreting the Constitution is to begin with the text, and to give that text the meaning that it bore when it was adopted by the people. I’m not a strict constructionist, despite the introduction. I don’t like the term “strict construction”. I do not think the Constitution, or any text should be interpreted either strictly or sloppily; it should be interpreted reasonably. Many of my interpretations do not deserve the description “strict”. I do believe however, that you give the text the meaning it had when it was adopted. . . .

Now, in asserting that originalism used to be orthodoxy, I do not mean to imply that judges did not distort the Constitution now and then, of course they did. We had willful judges then, and we will have willful judges until the end of time. But the difference is that prior to the last fifty years or so, prior to the advent of the “Living Constitution”, judges did their distortions the good-old-fashioned way, the honest way, they lied about it. They said the Constitution means such and such, when it never meant such and such.

It’s a big difference that you now no longer have to lie about it, because we are in the era of the evolving Constitution. And the judge can simply say, “Oh yes, the Constitution didn’t used to mean that, but it does now.”

So it is literally true, and I don’t think this is an exaggeration, that the Court has essentially liberated itself from the text of the Constitution, from the text, and even from the traditions of the American people.
And from the text of the Q&A:
Justice Scalia:. . . I didn’t say that if there is to be an evolution of standards under the Eighth Amendment, it’s up to the legislature. No, the legislature can’t change the Eighth Amendment. I’m saying the Eighth Amendment means what was cruel and unusual and unconstitutional in 1791 remains that today. The death penalty wasn’t, and hence it isn’t, despite the fact that I sat with three colleagues that thought it had become unconstitutional. Executing someone under eighteen was not unconstitutional in 1791, so it is not unconstitutional today. Now, it may be very stupid. It may be a very bad idea, just as notching ears, which was a punishment in 1791, is a very bad idea. But the people can change, the people can eliminate those stupidities if and when they want. To evolve, you don’t need a constitution. All you need is a legislature a ballot box. Things will evolve as much as you want. They can create a right to abortion. They can abolish the death penalty. They can legitimize homosexual sodomy. All of these things, all of these changes can come about democratically. You don’t need a constitution to do that. And it’s not the function of a constitution to do that.

[Question:] Mr. Justice Scalia, what do you think has caused the emergence of the Living Constitution doctrine? What were the forces in society, were there pressures that were not responded to by the legislature? What caused the emergence of this new doctrine?

Justice Scalia: I don’t know. Perhaps the question should be: how did we get away without having it develop much sooner. I mean it’s enormously seductive to a judge. The Living Constitution judge is a happy fellow. He comes home at night and his wife says, “Dear, did you have a good day on the bench?” “Oh, yes. We had a constitutional case today. And you know what? The Constitution meant exactly what I thought it ought to mean!” Well of course it does, because that’s your only criterion. That’s a very seductive philosophy. So it’s no surprise that it should take the society by storm. And it is the same thing for the man or woman in the street: to know that everything you care passionately about, whether it’s abortion or suicide, or whatever you care passionately about, it’s there in the Constitution. What a happy feeling. That’s what causes it. And that’s what makes it hard to call the society back from it. It’s tough medicine.
I'm not kidding, if you've ever wondered about just how it is that some of these judges make the decisions they do, you should read his whole speech.
Huge props to National Mustard for the link!

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