Originalism

  • February 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Despite attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel who appear to have produced a lengthy justification for targeted killings that skewers the English language to wend its around constitutional principles such as due process before the government can deprive a person of liberty, President Obama has nonetheless taken solid action to counter the right’s take on the Constitution as a document that limits government’s ability to take collective action to protect and advance the nation’s welfare.

    In a piece for The New Republic, Simon Lazarus, senior counsel to the Constitutional Accountability Center, says it’s about time – likely long overdue -- that progressives provide a compelling alternative to the right’s simplistic, but effective rhetoric of a Constitution that is all about individual rights and a weak central government.

    Quickly after the president provided some staunchly liberal rhetoric in his Second Inaugural address, Republican lawmakers, such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) brayed that the president was ushering in or attempting to an age of radical liberalism. Grassley, as noted here, also groused that the president had turned the Second Amendment on its head by arguing that new measures aimed at curbing gun violence were no threat to the individual right to bear arms.

    The president’s rhetoric on the Constitution, Lazarus writes, “echoes that of the Reconstruction Congresses which enacted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In line with then-existing Supreme Court precedent, they believed Congress empowered to prevent interference with the exercise of individual rights created by constitutional prohibitions on government. Specifically, they held the federal government responsible for preventing private violence and intimidation designed to deter former slaves from voting and enjoying other constitutionally prescribed liberties. And they wrote into the amendments express authority for Congress to ‘enforce’ that responsibility.”  

     

  • 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.

  • 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.”