Methods of interpretation

  • June 28, 2013
    Humor

    by John Schachter

    Article III of the U.S. Constitution plainly states that members of the Supreme Court “shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour.” For so-called textualists or strict constructionists who believe in using the actual words of the Constitution to interpret its meaning the time has come to kick Justice Samuel Alito off the bench.

    I have a nearly 14-year-old son – also named Samuel, by the way. Ever since he was toddler, we have told him to show respect for his peers, teammates, friends and teachers, for young and old alike. (Even for his parents, hard as that message is to sell.) When he scoffs at others’ opinions, interrupts those sharing their thoughts or – most annoying of all – rolls his eyes when someone is speaking, we reprimand him for his “bad behavior.”

    Justice Alito apparently never learned this lesson. As a result his behavior on the Court (and sometimes outside it) is anything but exemplary. It seems that it’s not just his opinions and votes that are offensive, but that his treatment of colleagues and other esteemed leaders is equally odious.

    The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank chronicled Alito’s rude treatment of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during the Court’s closing sessions, as he “visibly mocked” her during her reading of a dissent to one of his right-wing opinions. His eye-rolling also caught the attention of The Atlantic’s Garrett Epps, who called the behavior a “mini-tantrum” that “brought gasps from more than one person in the audience.”

    Milbank reported that Alito’s insolence extends beyond his ocular offenses aimed at Ginsburg. Days before as both Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor read from opinions in other cases Alito “demonstrated his disdain” for his colleagues by glowering, shaking his head and (it must be his signature move) rolling his eyes.

    Of course, all of this bad behavior comes on the heels of Alito silently yet snippily scolding President Obama during the 2010 State of the Union address when the president had the audacity to criticize the Court’s decision in Citizens United.

    When it comes to bad behavior, it doesn’t take an experienced jurist or constitutional scholar to “know it when [we] see it.” (It’s a lot easier to define than pornography.) So for those who believe in the words and text of the Constitution, let’s hear your call for Alito’s removal – or let’s hear your contorted reasoning why not.

    But you better not simply roll your eyes.

  • January 29, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Out shilling yet another book, the right-wing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia took yet another opportunity to repeat a line that is beyond tiresome. The U.S. Constitution is dead, Scalia said. Actually he said it was “dead, dead, dead.”

    Scalia has long taken umbrage with folks who refer to the nation’s governing document as a living one. In his talk at Southern Methodist University, Scalia expressed exasperation with schoolchildren who visit the high court and refer to a living Constitution. “It’s not a living document,” Scalia said. “It’s dead, dead, dead.”

    The justice has repeated this refrain too many times to count. (In fall 2011, he told a Senate committee that he hoped the “living constitution would die.”) So we understand that Scalia does not believe the Constitution provides liberty for women to make certain health care decisions, such as whether to have an abortion, or for marriage equality.

    Scalia argues that if you interpret the Constitution as an originalist you cannot come to the conclusion that liberty is that broad. Proponents of originalism argue that the Constitution’s text must be interpreted in a way the text was understood by the people who created the document’s language.

    Many others, however, have noted,  with increasing frequency that Scalia is an originalist only when it suits his ideology. Last year, UCLA law school professor Adam Winkler said “Scalia’s orginalism is a charade.”

    There are other ways to talk about the Constitution’s genius, however, that do not readily play into Scalia’s narrative. For instance in Keeping Faith with the Constitution, Goodwin Liu, Pamela S. Karlan and Christopher H. Schroeder explain why constitutional interpretation should be “faithful to what the Constitution is: not a legal code, not a lawyer’s contract, but a basic charter of government whose practical meaning arises from the continual adaptation of its enduring text and principles to the conditions and challenges facing each generation.”

    The authors continue:

    Preserving the document’s meaning and its democratic legitimacy requires us to interpret it in light of the conditions and challenges faced by succeeding generations. We use the term constitutional fidelity to describe this approach. To be faithful to the Constitution is to interpret its words and to apply its principles in ways that sustain their vitality over time. Fidelity to the Constitution requires judges to ask not how its general principles would have applied in 1789 or 1868, but rather how those principles should be applied today in order to preserve their power and meaning in light of concerns, conditions, and evolving norms of society. As Jack Balkin has put it, ‘if each generation is to be faithful to the Constitution and adopt the Constitution’s text and principles as its own, it must take responsibility for interpreting the implementing the Constitution in its own era.’

    The entire book is available here. It’s an accessible and short read and offers a strong counter to a tired refrain about a “dead” Constitution that is somehow relevant today.

  • September 17, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. This post is part of an ACSblog Constitution Day Symposium.


    Over the past three decades, conservative legal commentators have promoted a narrative about our Constitution that puts our hallowed text at odds with the goals of liberals. The Constitution, this story goes, is a profoundly conservative document whose words and principles tilt favorably towards the policy goals of today’s Republican Party: Small government. Law and order. Hostile to gay rights. Opposed to campaign finance law and affirmative action. Favoring nearly unbridled executive power in matters of war and foreign policy. If only jurists stuck to history – by interpreting the text by way of original intent or, alternatively, original meaning, rather than the living constitutionalism favored by Warren Court liberals – we would see the Constitution in its true light.

    There’s just one problem with this story. It’s not true.

    The Constitution was designed by the Framers to be a radically progressive document. The founding generation was comprised of revolutionaries, people who sought to make a new system of government that broadened rights rather than limited them. Their handiwork was itself thoroughly reformed by another group of progressives: the radical Republicans who added the Reconstruction Amendments. Over and over again, the Constitution has been revised by people inspired by liberal ideas, from the populists who sought the direct elections of senators to woman rights proponents who fought for the right to vote. Taken as a whole, the Constitution is anything but a conservative document. And while its words and principles don’t favor any political party, many of its core ideas support the policy goals of modern-day liberals. 

    Take, for instance, the argument that the Constitution favors small government. It is undoubtedly true that the framers wanted to circumscribe the power of government; that’s why we have the separation of powers, federalism, and a Bill of Rights. Yet often ignored is that the Framers crafted the Constitution to expand the powers of government so that Congress could effectively solve national problems. The document the Constitution replaced – the Articles of Confederation – hobbled government too much and the men who met in Philadelphia sought to rectify that error.

  • July 18, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Jeffrey M. Shaman, a professor at DePaul University College of Law and author of the just-released ACS Issue Brief, “Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan: Recusing Freedom of Speech.”


    Arrogant, defiant, and dogmatic, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a true believer in the theory of originalism — the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its original meaning when first adopted in 1787. Originalism is based on the notion that the Constitution has a fixed meaning that does not change with the passage of time. Given the bully pulpit of his high office, Justice Scalia is the nation’s most prominent advocate of this extreme and deeply conservative ideology.

    The problem is that originalism is a fraud that misrepresents the nature of history by presuming that it has an objective meaning that can be discovered through study of the past. However, the belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively is an illusion. The meaning of the Constitution does not reside in the past, and any attempt to ascertain the original meaning of the Constitution necessarily entails reconstructing the past in one’s mind. Originalism, then, perpetrates a pretense of objectivity that functions as a facade for policy-making.

    The illusory propensity of originalism is strikingly apparent in District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled by a slim 5-4 majority that the Second Amendment of the Constitution protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.

  • July 10, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    While liberals continue to ponderously ponder how to refute the right’s method of constitutional interpretation called originalism, the right continues to advance a simplistic and destructive story that the Constitution is all about severely limiting the federal government’s reach. 

    For far too long liberals have obsessed over methods of constitutional interpretation, leaving rightists to advance the constitutional storyline, which says the nation’s governing document only promotes individualism, limited government, and of course Christianity.

    As law professor and historian William E. Forbath recently noted in an op-ed for The New York Times liberals have far too often shrugged their shoulders at this narrative, claiming that “rights and wrongs of economic life” are not addressed by the Constitution, but instead through politics.

    “That’s a major failing,” Forbath (pictured) writes, “because there is a venerable rival to constitutional laissez-faire: a rich distributive tradition of constitutional law and politics, rooted in the framers’ generation. None other than James Madison was among its prominent expounders – in his draft of the Virginia Constitution, he included rights to free education and public land.”

    In a more expansive piece for the book, The Constitution in 2020, Forbath explores the “historical heft” of a century-long effort “to make good on the constitutional justice of livelihoods and social and economic rights ….”

    For example, Abraham Lincoln and other founders of the Republican Party argued that equal rights also included “a fair distribution of initial endowments,” and FDR in his State of the Union proposing a Second Bill of Rights, said the government “owes to everyone an avenue to possess himself of a portion of [the nation’s wealth] sufficient for his needs, through his own work.”

    Moreover, Forbath noted, African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement strived to “craft a broader social rights agenda,” including the right to a decent income. During the Civil Rights movement, the federal courts took note of the efforts in “undoing the exclusion of black women from welfare rolls,” he continued.

    The Supreme Court in its 1970 Goldberg v. Kelly opinion, said, “From its founding the Nation’s basic commitment has been to foster the dignity and well-being of all persons within its borders. We have come to recognize that forces not within the control of the poor contribute to their poverty.”