The New Originalism Debate—An Early Roundup of Good Reads

A few weeks ago, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter delivered a call to arms against the misguided theory of “constitutional originalism” that has dominated recent debates on the Supreme Court. “The Constitution is no simple contract,” Souter said, “Not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language that a contract draftsman would try to avoid, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, all together, all at once.”

Souter’s argument has started a robust and refreshing conversation about keeping faith with the Constitution …. and debunking the notion of justices as constitutional umpires who have to simply stand at the plate and call objective balls and strikes.

Constitutional law professor Alain L. Sanders weighed in today with an interesting take on what a literal adherence to the Constitution as originally written —sure to be invoked in the upcoming hearings on Elena Kagan’s nomination— would mean:

The political oratory will be enticing to many, and sound astute, learned and even well-grounded. But much of it will be misleading, wrong-headed, and unsupported by logic, history, or the principles of the Constitution. A simple examination of the Senate confirmation proceedings themselves illuminates the fallacies of the conservative assault.

Sitting on the Senate Judiciary panel will be California's Dianne Feinstein and Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar. To any and all true-blue strict constructionists, the presence of these two women legislators ought immediately to sound the alarm of unconstitutionality and invalidate the entire confirmation process. The Constitution states clearly, directly and consistently throughout its many provisions that federal officials are to be men.

Sanders’ argument brought to mind some other great riffs on Souter’s speech that we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. These articles are all worth a read:

The Constitutional Accountability Center’s Doug Kendall and UVA professor Jim Ryan argued that adherence to the full text and history of the Constitution – including all of its amendments - is something that progressives can and should embrace:

We live in an era thick with conservative nostalgia for the "original" Constitution and the ideas of our founding, even when those ideas have been repudiated or modified by subsequent constitutional amendments. Kagan would be doing the entire nation as well as the Constitution itself a service if she would use the confirmation process to express and explain her commitment to follow the Constitution—all of it. If Kagan does talk about the text and history of the Constitution, as well as the role of the court, it could go a long way toward recalibrating the current national debate on the judiciary and the Constitution.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asked why it’s fashionable to see the Constitution as a simple instructional manual:

So, as we look forward toward Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings, the question isn't whether she will use the opportunity of her hearings to defend living constitutionalism or to debunk originalism. That is probably too freighted a discussion, and one that no progressive can possibly win in this day and age. The question I would ask is why it's so fashionable for nominees to suggest that the hard work of judging is simple; that the Constitution is no more complicated than the instructions for assembling an Ikea end table; and that the reason they are perfectly qualified for the job is that, well, they can read. What does it say about the court as an institution that everyone who goes through the interview process must downplay the difficulty of the job?

And Adam Serwer of the American Prospect, responding to Lithwick, calls originalism out as “a great hustle”:

Lithwick notes that the theory of orginalism assumes a "nonexistent universe in which all cases are easy and all the constitutional directives are perfectly clear." But to the originalists, it is always perfectly clear: The answer is whatever they want it to be, all other conclusions are inherently illegitimate. That's what makes originalism such a great hustle -- its arbitraryness is masked by nigh-bulletproof rhetorical argument -- that its adherents are simply "applying the law as written." In order to attack their reasoning, you first have to dismantle the idea that there are no inherent tensions within the Constitution that need to be resolved in order to reach a clear ruling. In a way, originalists are a bit like religious fundamentalists who insist on following their religious texts literally but in practice only select those that fit their prevailing cultural sympathies, dismissing others as heretics and unbelievers.

We’re hoping that the weeks since Souter’s commencement address are just the beginning of a new discussion about the Constitution and the importance of the Supreme Court in all of our lives - a discussion that should be at the center of the debate on Kagan’s confirmation.


 

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