Justice Scalia defends view of the Constitution


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia discussed his philosophy of Constitutional originalism and how it can be applied to modern cases at the Gould School of Law’s 2012 Justice Lester W. Roth Lecture on Tuesday.

Scalia explained originalism as interpreting the Constitution as the framers intended it, instead of reading new meaning into the document.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia spoke at the Gould School of Law about his philosophy of interpreting the Constitution as the framers intended. - Photo courtesy of Mikel Healey

His ideological opponents believe the Constitution is a living document that changes over time to reflect an evolving society.

“The living Constitution — I hate it,” Scalia said. “The enduring Constitution, that is what I’m defending.”

One of the key pieces of logic behind his philosophy, Scalia said, is that scholars don’t read new meaning into the text of other historical documents or pieces of literature.

“When we read Shakespeare, we have a glossary,” Scalia said. “We don’t think the words have changed there, so why do we think they have changed in the Constitution?”

The Justice, however, said he sees why his opponents wish to believe the Constitution can change.

“It’s a very seductive philosophy,” Scalia said. “It’s wonderful to think whatever you are passionate about — abortion, the death penalty, homosexual sodomy — is in the Constitution.”

Though that perspective can be tempting, it would distort the objectivity of the Supreme Court, he said.

“If you find what the original meaning of the Constitution is, I am handcuffed,” Scalia said. “I cannot do the nasty conservative things I would like to do to the people.”

A loose interpretation of the law is a recent phenomenon, Scalia said. He said this philosophy allowed justices starting with the Warren Court to tamper with the meaning of the law while still appearing objective.

“In the old days, they distorted the Constitution in the good old-fashioned way — they lied about it,” Scalia said.

While few lawyers or judges have as strong of a view of originalism as Scalia, many said his beliefs have still made an impact on the profession.

“There is no other justice who has had as much influence on the way we lawyers see the law,” Dean Robert Rasmussen of the Gould School of Law said.

Students also said hearing Scalia defend his school of thought in person was a valuable experience.

“I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it was great to hear about originalism from one of the leaders of that school of thought,” law student Danielle Warner said.

Not all students in the audience, however, had such a positive viewpoint.

“I think it is troubling to have such a rigid, black and white perspective on issues, especially for someone who is supposed to be inherently objective,” law student Blanca Hernandez said.

Despite some disagreement with Scalia’s strong beliefs, most appreciated the opportunity to hear from such a prominent figure.

“It’s really cool USC Gould School of Law attracts Supreme Court justices, but at the same time he makes it sound so easy,” law student Ryan McDonald said.

Though many may disagree with his philosophy, Scalia said he remains a strong originalist because of what is really important: protecting the meaning of the Constitution.

“What’s the use of adopting a Bill of Rights if it doesn’t mean anything except what future generations want it to mean?” Scalia said.

  • recovering anachronist

    The Constitution provides a mechanism for changing with the times. Don’t like what it says? Update it through the amendment process. Don’t usurp its meaning through unprincipled reinterpretation.

    If minorities are regarded as subhuman and no longer considered “persons” by future generations, would equal protection of persons (as connoted by its previous meaning) no longer extend to them?

    • whodat

      your theories are delightfully crackpot, and i wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

    • Tandy

      If minorities are regarded by the majority as subhuman and not considered “persons” by future majorities, can they “update” the constitution through the amendment process? Or, is the bill of rights specifically there to protect the inherent rights of minorities, regardless of what majorities may or may not want to “update” in the future? Because if it’s the latter, then of course the Const has to be reinterpreted as we face situations the framers never dreamed of.

  • Thomas

    “‘I think it is troubling to have such a rigid, black and white perspective on issues, especially for someone who is supposed to be inherently objective,’ law student Blanca Hernandez said.”

    Yeah! He could be way more objective if he was wishy-washy and let his personal feelings guide him. Oh, wait…

  • Ginsburg

    Homosexual sodomy? Did Scalia have to take a time machine to USC from the nineteenth century?

  • Christopher Ganiere

    Nice ending quote.