Like Mark Pulliam, I think a lot about Robert Bork: anyone who teaches either antitrust law or constitutional law should, and I teach both. He was great scholar. In particular, he powerfully challenged the conventional views of living constitutionalism that dominated his time and begin to make the intellectual case for originalism. But it was only the beginning of the case and does not mark the best understanding of originalism today.
What prompts a man to change his mind on a serious matter after 35 years, and should the reversal be met with pride (for eventually getting it right), or chagrin (for taking so long)? For reasons of vanity, I’m going to take a positive tack and choose the former.
“Wisdom,” Felix Frankfurter once remarked, “too often never comes, so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.” Allow me to explain.
The latest nominations of ten fine lower court judges makes clear that President Trump is the best President for judicial selection since at least Ronald Reagan, particularly in his willingness to nominate conservative legal academics likely to have extraordinary influence. He has certainly been aided by having a Republican Senate, and by relying on the network of the Federalist Society, but the nominations are his own.
And they will receive almost universal approbation among conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians. That includes those who supported Trump and those who were Never-Trumpers, although it is somewhat embarrassing for those Never Trumpers who said the candidate could not be trusted to select good judges or even to choose justices from the list he announced. As I said before the election, precisely because of his other heterodox stances, Trump would follow through on his unifying judicial commitments.
Appointing judges whose ideal is to enforce the Constitution as written unites almost all strands of the political right. For traditional conservatives, the Constitution represents an anchor against too rapid change. For libertarians, the Constitution contains valuable limitations on government power and protections of rights. For both, originalism protects the rule of law against the latest social engineering fads of the left.
But one might wonder whether this union will survive the increasingly fierce debate between judicial engagement and judicial restraint among constitutional theorists on the right..
As the confirmation battle over 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch—Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the late Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat—takes shape on cable news shows and across newspaper opinion pages, phrases like “judicial restraint” and “judicial activism” dominate much of the discussion.
While anyone you ask will agree that restraint is good and activism bad, and that judges should be careful not to usurp lawmaking authority from the people’s duly elected representatives, it’s often difficult to figure out exactly what people mean when they give their opinion on this subject. All too often, calls for judicial restraint or deference are not about dispassionately applying the law and leaving the policy decisions to Congress; they are calls for blind rubber-stamping of governmental action.
George Will has enjoyed a long career as a public intellectual, an especially illustrious one for a Right-of-center figure. For over four decades, Will’s commentary has appeared in intellectual magazines and newspapers including National Review, the Washington Post, and Newsweek. He has many books to his name as well as a widely syndicated newspaper column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977. A Ph.D. from Princeton, he’s also a familiar talking head on television, often sporting a bow tie and playing the role of the sober, erudite Washington insider.
Those four decades have been a tumultuous period in our political culture; it would not be surprising if Will’s political views had evolved over that time, and indeed they have. His 1983 book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, was a full-throated paean to strong-government Tory conservatism, in the Burkean tradition. He has lately been tacking in the libertarian direction.
Greg Weiner and Evan Bernick have been conducting an interesting debate in this blog about the virtues of judicial restraint and judicial engagement. Rather than directly confront either position, I would like to raise a methodological point. Doesn’t judicial restraint or judicial engagement need to be rooted in the meaning of the Constitution? In other words, judges’ approach to constitutional interpretation should not be based on policy arguments about how judges should behave but on the original meaning of Constitution itself, just as our interpretation of specific provisions should be fixed by original meaning.
Let me be a little more specific:
Professor Mark Tushnet is nothing if not candid. In a series of posts written for the Balkinization legal site, Tushnet exhorts his fellow Progressives to look around, recognize that a majority of appellate judges are now Democratic appointees, and abandon “defensive crouch liberalism.” Instead of “looking over their shoulders for retaliation by conservatives,” Tushnet proposes (among other things) that Progressives compile lists of Supreme Court cases “to be overruled at the first opportunity” on the grounds that they were “wrong the day they were decided,” and take a “hard-line approach” with conservatives in the culture wars.
In response to: Saving Originalism from the Originalists
Stephen F. Smith begins his Liberty Forum essay by quoting from Justice Antonin Scalia’s “Originalism: The Lesser Evil” speech from 1988. There Scalia announces that the Constitution, though it has an effect superior to other laws, is in its nature a sort of ‘law’ that is the business of the courts—an enactment that has a fixed meaning ascertainable through the usual devices familiar to those learned in the law. Deviation from the fixed-meaning method would lead to judicial decisions based on “the preferences of the judge himself.” The opening reference to Scalia is made in order to 1) identify originalism with the late…
Stephen Smith’s Liberty Forum essay concerns an important question for originalism: How can originalists provide nonoriginalists with an incentive to follow the Constitution’s original meaning? Smith identifies what he regards as a serious problem with originalism: “In a world in which many judges reject original intention as a binding constraint, originalism cannot achieve its goal of…
Kudos to Stephen Smith, and kudos to the man behind the curtain (Richard Reinsch) for inviting his essay. What a breath of fresh air. In the current environment, constitutionalism seems unlikely to regain real-world traction any time soon. Surely, though, that must remain the long-term objective. To that end originalism must liberate itself from its…
It was an honor for me to contribute my initial essay, “Saving Originalism from the Originalists,” to the Liberty Law Forum, and now I am doubly honored to have had my work reviewed by constitutional scholars as widely respected as Professors Michael Greve, Gordon Lloyd, and Mike Rappaport. I am grateful to each of them…