Why Supreme Court 'Originalists' Are Wrong About the Constitution

Author David Strauss discusses the importance of an evolving interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

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While the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787 as the final word on all legal matters, there's a lot of room for debate when interpreting it for contemporary times. In his new book, The Living Constitution, University of Chicago law professor David Strauss examines how the understanding of the Constitution needs to evolve, as it has, while still providing the anchor for American jurisprudence. In doing so, he disputes the view of "originalists"—among them current Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas—who argue for adhering closely to the words and intentions of the document's framers. The constitutional law scholar recently discussed his views with U.S. News. Excerpts:

What is a "living" Constitution?

A living Constitution is one that evolves or changes over time. The big risk is that if you just think about it that way, you'd want to ask the questions: Who's in charge of making the changes? How do we keep the Constitution from becoming just a plaything in that person's hands?

Who would be making the changes?

The evolution of the Constitution is in the hands of a lot of people. It's in the hands of judges, justices, elected politicians and, in some ways, it's in the hands of the American people. The key is that, in the system we have, the Constitution doesn't just change because someone wants it to change. It changes because our traditions and our precedents are evolving.

Why is it a bad idea to think of the Constitution as not open to an evolving interpretation?

First, it's very hard to figure out, on a lot of issues, what they were thinking back in the 18th and 19th centuries when our most important constitutional provisions were passed. The second reason is: Even if we knew what they thought back then, all we would know is what they thought about their society. We'd be reduced to speculating about what the framers would think in a world of telecommunications and air travel and the Internet.

How has the digital information age changed Constitutional law?

The digital age has changed things. Before then, the age of mass transit and mass communication changed things. And before then, the existence of a transcontinental nation with a nationwide economy changed things. I think the single biggest change you see is in the role of the federal government.

What do you mean?

The original thinking about the federal government was that it should be a small institution that did a few tasks: national defense, set up a post office, and a few other things. Over time, without the Constitution ever being formally amended, we have come not just to accept but really to insist upon a much more powerful federal government to address the needs of a society that is so different from the society that existed 200-plus years ago.

To what extent is "judicial activism" a problem?

Judicial activism usually is just a term people use for a decision they don't like. But I do think that when people see the choice about the Constitution as being between either "It's what the framers wanted" or "It's just up for grabs," then there is a temptation for judges to do more than what they should do. We realize that the system works best when it's anchored in and evolves from traditions and precedents. That limits what judges can do but without locking us in straitjackets.

You argue that Roe v. Wade would be indefensible under an originalist view of the Constitution, but it would be defensible within the framework of a living Constitution. What do you mean by that?

I think Roe v. Wade would be indefensible under an originalist view, but I also think Brown v. Board of Education would be wrong under that view.

Why?

It is actually pretty clear that when the 14th Amendment was adopted—which is the amendment the court relies on in that case—they didn't mean to make school segregation unconstitutional. In fact, the spectator galleries of the Senate that debated the amendment were segregated by race. So it's very hard to say that they had a problem with racial segregation.