Posts tagged with: originalism

June 17, 1996

Rev. Robert A. Sirico & Justice Scalia – June 17, 1996

Over the weekend, we were saddened to hear of the passing of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, a giant of conservative jurisprudence, stalwart champion of originalist interpretation, and as such a true friend of the Constitution.

He was also a friend of the Acton Institute, and we are proud to share the address he delivered on June 17, 1997 at the Acton Institute’s Seventh Anniversary Dinner in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He titled his remarks “On Interpreting the Constitution,” and in them he explained his originalist approach to Constitutional law, and the severe drawbacks that he saw with any alternative method of interpretation. He described himself thusly:

I am one of a small but hardy breed of interpretists left in the world who are called “textualists,” or “originalists”… People ask me, “when did you become a textualist? What caused you to become a textualist?” You know, sort of like “when did you begin eating human beings?” As though it’s some weird thing, you know? I mean, I—when did you begin to become not a textualist? You know, you have a text, you should read the text! …I’m not kidding, I’m always baffled at the amazement of these people – “well, what a novel idea! You’re a textualist!”

I treat the Constitution the way laws, statutes have always been treated – we try to figure out what it meant when it was adopted.

Scalia’s pointed and witty observations reveal a man with a brilliant legal mind coupled with a wonderful sense of humor, and the arguments that he laid out in 1997 are just as relevant today, if not more so. During his address, he expressed a sense of pessimism about the state of the American legal culture and jurisprudence; but if he was a pessimist, he was surely a very jovial pessimist. His wisdom, his wit, and his steady presence on the Supreme Court will be deeply missed. We have remastered the audio of his 1997 remarks, and present them via the audio player below.

Reading through Scalia Dissents: Writings of the Supreme Court’s Wittiest, Most Outspoken Justice, I came across this gem: “No government official is ‘tempted’ to place restraints upon his own freedom of action, which is why Lord Acton did not say ‘Power tends to purify.'”

The comments from Justice Scalia emerged from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992). A fuller context to his words gives added meaning to the threat to liberty and the rule of law from activist courts:

The Court’s statement that it is “tempting” to acknowledge the authoritativeness of tradition in order to “cur[b] the discretion of federal judges” is, of course, rhetoric rather than reality; no government official is tempted” to place restraints upon his own freedom of action, which is why Lord Acton did not say “Power tends to purify.” The Court’s temptation is in the quite opposite and more natural direction – towards systematically eliminating checks upon its power; and it succumbs.

Jordan Ballor reminded me of a similar Lord Acton quote: “Everybody likes to get as much power as circumstances allow, and nobody will vote for a self-denying ordinance.”