Thanks to the heavy lifting of former Attorney General Edwin Meese, the concept of “originalism” has gained serious traction within the judiciary, and even in academia.
On June 7, Meese will be honored as one of the four 2012 Bradley Prize recipients during a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. By calling attention to Meese’s contributions to the conservative cause, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation has performed a valuable service. If President Obama wins re-election, he could potentially remake the U.S. Supreme Court. For this reason alone, it is worth reviewing the former attorney general’s key observations.
A critical turning point came in 1985 when Meese addressed the American Bar Association (ABA) in Washington. Here, he made the case for a jurisprudence rooted in the Constitution’s text and its original meaning. Since President Obama could potentially remake the U.S. Supreme Court if he wins re-election, it is worth reviewing some of Meese’s key observations.
“By seeking to judge policies in light of principles, rather than remold principles in light of policies, the Court could avoid the charge of incoherence and the charge of being either too conservative or too liberal,” Meese explained in his ABA talk. “A jurisprudence seriously aimed at the explication of original intention would produce defensible principles of government that would not be tainted by ideological predilection. This belief in a jurisprudence of original intention also reflects a deeply rooted commitment to the idea of democracy.”
A close confidante to Governor Reagan and later President Reagan, Meese, who now chairs the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, has been a potent intellectual force within the conservative movement.
“Ed Meese has been an invaluable public servant,” said Michael Grebe, president and chief executive officer of the Bradley Foundation. “His entire career has been devoted to upholding the rule of law and making the nation more secure.”
Meese’s 1985 ABA speech jolted Washington’s liberal establishment. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan accused originalists of “arrogance cloaked as humility” during a talk at Georgetown University that same year.
There was no reliable way modern judges could properly discern original meaning, he argued.
But Meese was unrelenting.
In subsequent speeches, he continued to hammer home the idea that judges should not substitute their own political convictions in the place of fixed constitutional meanings.
Given how narrowly divided the U.S. Supreme Court is between constitutionalists and activists, Gov. Mitt Romney would do well to channel Meese’s commentary on originalist jurisprudence.
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