By Seth Stern and Stephen Wermiel, coauthors of Justice Brennan: Liberal Champion, which will be published this week. Stern is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and a Harvard Law School graduate. Wermiel teaches constitutional law at American University Washington College of Law.
Twenty five years ago this month, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. engaged Attorney General Edwin Meese in a then unprecedented public debate on constitutional interpretation.
Brennan, who at 79 remained the Supreme Court's most vigorous proponent of a living constitution, never actually shared a stage with Meese, President Reagan's long time adviser and leading advocate of originalism. If they had, the ideal venue for this jurisprudential equivalent of the 1975 match, pitting Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier and nicknamed the "Thrilla in Manila," might have been a boxing ring.
Meese had lobbed the first volley in a July, 1985 speech to the American Bar Association's annual convention in Washington, D.C. titled "Jurisprudence of Original Intention." He generated headlines by criticizing the Court for "a drift back toward the radical egalitarianism and expansive civil libertarianism of the Warren Court."
Meese later admitted he purposely chose the prominent venue - and provocative tone - to raise originalism's profile. The idea that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the original understanding of the founding fathers had gained currency among conservative legal scholars in the previous decade but not yet seeped into the public consciousness.