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Franken Speaks on “Originalism”

June 19th, 2010

Franken began by noting he’s not a lawyer, and was one of the few non-lawyers on the Senate confirmation hearings for Sotomayor; but what he says brings to mind an important truth: being a lawyer means that you studied the law, but not that you’re right about it, and vice-versa.

Here’s an excerpt from the address. You can read the entire speech on Franken’s site.

Justice Souter once said: “The first lesson, simple as it is, is that whatever court we’re in, whatever we are doing, at the end of our task some human being is going to be affected.”

Conservatives would like us to forget this lesson.

They’ve distorted our constitutional discourse to make it sound like the Court’s rulings don’t matter to ordinary people, but only to the undeserving riff-raff at the margins of society.

So unless you want to get a late-term abortion, burn a flag in the town square, or get federal funding for your pornographic artwork, you really don’t need to worry about what the Supreme Court is up to.

The ACLU has a long and proud history of defending the First Amendment, and while I haven’t seen polling on this, I’d bet that most Americans are fairly pro-First Amendment. But, thanks to a generation of conservative activism, the ACLU is now best known as “those guys who hate Christmas.”

By defining the terms of constitutional debate such that it doesn’t involve the lives of ordinary people, conservatives have disconnected Americans from their legal system. And that leaves room for lots of shenanigans.

By controlling the conversation, the Federalist Society has moved the Supreme Court sharply to the right.

“Including myself,” Justice Stevens said in an interview with the New York Times, “every judge who’s been appointed to the court since Lewis Powell has been more conservative than his or her predecessor. Except maybe Justice Ginsburg. That’s bound to have an effect on the court.”

And, indeed, the Roberts Court has overturned two principles I believe are deeply ingrained in our Constitution, in our legal tradition, and in our American values.

First: Judicial restraint.

As I have noted repeatedly – and in an increasingly exasperated tone of voice – over the last few years, Justice Thomas has voted to overturn federal laws more often than Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer combined.

They haven’t just been activists in their decisions, but also in their process.

In both Citizens United and Gross, the Court answered questions it wasn’t asked, reaching beyond the scope of what they accepted for appeal to overturn federal laws the conservative wing didn’t like.

I mean, I don’t speak Latin. But unless stare decisis means “overturn stuff,” then maybe it’s time for conservatives to stop calling other people “dangerous radicals.”

Second, and more importantly: They’ve overturned the principle that the law should be a place where ordinary people can turn for relief when wronged by the powerful.

At the front entrance to the Supreme Court building here in Washington, beneath the words “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW,” there’s a set of 1,300-pound bronze doors.

Countless Americans have flowed through those doors to see the place where that principle is protected.

Now those doors have been locked to the public. Things have changed.

To add the words of another non-expert non-lawyer:

…strict constructionism is more than just a litmus test. It is rapidly becoming a way to help disassemble the Constitution of the United States and render meaningless many if not most of the rights and liberties guaranteed under it. Strict constructionism is a tool being used in the current conservative quest to place as much power as possible into the hands of government, and to weaken the power, rights, and capabilities of the American people, so as to make possible the imposition of a specific social and moral structure which, by nature, is unconstitutional. Since revolution and amending the Constitution can be difficult and messy, it is much easier simply to reinterpret the standing law under a new paradigm–ironically, in part by claiming that one should not be allowed to interpret anything.

Or, in the unguarded words of an expert:

“A judge who is a ‘strict constructionist’ in constitutional matters will generally not be favorably inclined toward claims of either criminal defendants or civil rights plaintiffs—the latter two groups having been the principal beneficiaries of the Supreme Court’s ‘broad constructionist’ reading of the Constitution.”

–William Rehnquist, late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while serving as assistant attorney general under Richard Nixon, in an analysis of the rulings of Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr. to determine a nominee to replace Justice Abe Fortas

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  1. Tim Kane
    June 19th, 2010 at 22:12 | #1

    Originalism was the doctrine use by Chief Justice Taney when he wrote the Dredd Scott decision.

    Originalism perports to put itself into the mind of the original drafter of the constitution.

    Taney said that Scott could never be a citizen, because the framers of the constitution said that all men are equal, and at the same time said that African Americans were slaves, therefore, the framers did not have black slaves in mind as ‘men’ when they drafted the constitution. Therefore Dredd Scott could never enjoy the rights of citizenship and could only be a slave.

    Such logic viewed the constitution as a blatantly racist document. Taney thought he found a way to solve the slavery crisis. Instead he impelled the nation into a horrific war.

    Conservatives use the Dredd Scott decision as a dog whistle for cultural conservatives: they believe the unborn suffer the same indignity as Dredd Scott in being classified as nonpersons.

    Originalism is the constitutional doctrine of Scalia, and I think, Thomas (ironically enough).

    I wish people would corner Scalia on this. I’d love to see the discomfort.

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