In my first post of this series on law and tradition, I said that though a judicial opinion might exhibit both originalist and traditionalist features, these are nevertheless distinct interpretive categories. In this post and the next, I will briefly explore the similarities and differences in two opinions decided by the Supreme Court in 2014—Town of Greece v. Galloway and NLRB v. Noel Canning—both of which are traditionalist but not (necessarily) originalist in method (though Town of Greece is complicated). My claim is not that these decisions are correct; only that each exhibits a distinctive interpretive approach that is intentional about maintaining coherence and continuity with very long-standing patterns of legal and cultural practices and that each determines constitutional meaning primarily on the basis of practices rather than principles.
How might we distinguish the traditionalist judicial decision?
I’ve been traveling today, driving from Amherst back to Washington, and so I’m catching up with some of the comments drawn by the piece on Commencements and the bizarre implication that springs from the judgment of the Court in Lee v. Weisman. I want to thank Carl Scott for his stirring words on Natural Rights & the Right to Choose. But on this matter of whether I would try to make use of the lever revealed in this case, he has me wrong on one critical point: I’m always in favor of the conservatives making use of the ‘principles’ laid down by the Left in order to show how those principles would work quite forcefully against them. The Left persistently fails to live by the rules or principles it lays down for others, and so the only way of making them back away is to use the precedents they set in ways that they’ll find quite jarring.
“As an initial matter, the Clause probably prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion.” –Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion in Greece v. Galloway
“Probably”? As if the May 5, 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, upholding prayers said at the beginning of legislative meetings, didn’t upset strict separationists enough, Justice Clarence Thomas’s radically originalist concurring opinion was enough to bring on shouts for an exorcism. To the contrary, Thomas’s reasoning about the First Amendment establishment clause is the most rational way to preserve liberty, by recognizing the institutional principle of federalism as well as the individual right of religious free exercise. This becomes clear once we see this opinion in light of his earlier, lengthier establishment opinions.
There’s been another naughty pastor. No, not the usual, but instead a minister who mentioned Christ’s name when asked to pray at a town council meeting. (They will do that!) Happily, the offending pastor need not repair to Capri, for the Supreme Court upheld the prayer in yesterday’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. I’m especially delighted, since it means that pastors need not follow the advice I gave them in The American Spectator. Since obscene speech enjoys First Amendment protection, and since it doesn’t raise religious establishment problems, I suggested that pastors might prudently lace their sermons with a few F-Bombs.