Originalism

  • August 9, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire’s selection last fall of a long-serving King County judge with a varied and sterling legal background to replace a retiring justice on the state’s high court, was widely lauded among the state’s legal community as a solid move, as Eli Sanders reported earlier this summer for the Seattle publication, the Stranger.

    But the way in which that justice, Steve González, retained his seat yesterday in a statewide election should prompt state officials in Washington and for that matter the other states that choose to elect judges to reconsider the process.

    Although González (pictured), among the state’s first of Latino heritage to serve on the Washington State Supreme Court, won his seat with 58 percent of the statewide vote, his challenger Bruce Danielson garnered 43 percent of the vote and carried 30 of 39 counties. Danielson did so, as Sanders reports, without raising any money and with his hometown Kitsap County Bar Association declaring he possessed “zero qualifications” to serve on the high court.

    Sanders, as well as others in the state, took note of what occurred: with little information, many voters picked the guy with the “very, very white-sounding name.” The state, Sanders reported did not create and send out voter guides and only “6 or 7 counties” created guides. The state cited budgetary reasons for failing to educate voters.

    Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington, told The Seattle Times that some voters simply would not vote for a guy named González, especially in areas dominated by anti-Latino sentiment.

    “So it’s not rocket science; we know these things are happening,” Barretto said.

    González overcame prejudice by raising and spending money to educate as many voters as possible.

    Before being tapped by the governor, González had served ten years as a trial judge on the King County Superior Court, presiding over criminal, civil, juvenile and family law cases. Before that lengthy stint as a judge, he practiced criminal and civil law, and served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Western District of Washington. During his tenure as an Assistant U.S. Attorney he helped successfully prosecute a high-profile international terrorism case, for which he garnered two awards from the U.S. Department of Justice. Moreover, González has received outstanding ratings from an array of bar associations, such as the King County Bar Association, which deemed him “Exceptionally Well Qualified,” and the Tacoma Pierce County Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Committee, which did the same.

  • 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.”

  • July 6, 2012

    by Samantha Berkovits

    University of Texas law Professor William E. Forbath calls for liberals to champion a stronger interpretation of the Constitution that aims to squelch inequality. Those tempted to take up this cause, which Forbath presented in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, may find themselves facing an unfriendly battlefield, but Forbath is confident that history is on their side.

    The constitutional argument for equality may seem inherent in a document meant to “promote the general Welfare.” However, the recent victory for liberals in the Affordable Care Act case was ensconced in nearly 200 pages of opinion, with much of the language holding the potential to destroy the legacy of the New Deal, with rough consequences for an American public already facing a dangerous economic landscape. Forbath writes, “Even the new doctrine that the majority adopted may hobble efforts to condition federal grants-in-aid on compliance with national goals, like child-care assistance for the working poor.”

    Conservatives, Forbath notes, would have the public believe that the goal of the Constitution is to protect and establish “individualism, small government, godliness and private property.” In response to this “crackpot originalism” liberals have been playing defense, when they should have been on the offensive. According to Forbath, all the necessary tools to present a case for a Constitution that allows the government to, in the words of Justice Ginsburg, “regulate the national economy in the interest of those who labor to sustain it” can be found in American history.

  • June 26, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    For what seems like decades a conventional wisdom, built largely by a handful of Supreme Court correspondents, has held that Justice Antonin Scalia is the high court’s most brilliant, disciplined, albeit ideological, member. He is also, according to this conventional wisdom, deliciously witty.  

    But thankfully, the Web has altered the narrative by giving forums to an array of writers who have been quick to poke holes in an increasingly tiresome and shoddy line of reporting. (It should be noted, however, that longtime Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse is not among the gaggle that built the fawning picture of a straight-shooting justice with a jolly wit. Indeed Greenhouse has taken Scalia’s sloppy work to task on numerous occasions.)

    Moreover the aging Scalia is simply not helping to advance the conventional wisdom. Though in fairness, he hardly seems concerned with what reporters, bloggers think or write about him. His constituency is made up of right-wing politicos and activists. He’s the Koch brothers’ justice.

    With each passing high court term, Scalia seems to becoming wackier, more out-of-touch, increasingly shrill. And he’s being called out for his nuttiness with growing frequency.

    In a piece for Salon, Paul Campos, for instance, is not mincing words about the tottering justice. Scalia, Campos writes, “has in his old age become an increasingly intolerant and intolerable blowhard: a pompous celebrant of his own virtue and rectitude, a purveyor of intemperate jeremiads against the degeneracy of the age, and now an author of hysterical diatribes against foreign invaders, who threaten all that is holy.”

    Campos was referring to Scalia’s concurring, dissenting opinion issued in Arizona v. U.S. where a majority of the justices invalidated three provisions, and weakened a fourth, of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law. In his opinion Scalia not only railed against alleged dangers undocumented persons pose to Arizona, but also ruminated about state sovereignty and took a shot at President Obama’s actions on immigration policy.