Scalia: Strict constitutional interpretation best
MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — Justice Antonin Scalia mixed passion and humor with lessons in history and legal thought as he vigorously defended a strict interpretation of the Constitution in a March 8 lecture before a packed college crowd in Connecticut.
Scalia, the longest-serving justice currently on the U.S. Supreme Court, told a crowd of more than 250 students, faculty members and alumni at Wesleyan University — and several hundred at overflow sites — that an originalist view of the Constitution is the best way to answer complicated legal problems.
The Court’s early justices would be “astonished that the notion of the Constitution changes to mean whatever each successive generation would like it to mean,” he said.
“In fact, it would be not much use to have a First Amendment, for example, if the freedom of speech included only what some future generation wanted it to include. That would guarantee nothing all.”
Scalia, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, criticized those who he said believe in an “evolving” or “living” Constitution, saying they are failing to follow the Constitution as it was written and amended
“If you think proponents of a living Constitution are trying to bring you flexibility and power to change, you should think again,” he said at Wesleyan’s annual lecture named in honor of Hugo Black, a long-serving Supreme Court justice appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt.
The Constitution as interpreted by originalists gives voters the power to change politicians who write laws on a range of complicated problems such as obscenity, abortion and the death penalty, he said.
In contrast, the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, reversed laws that had been on the books in every state for 200 years, Scalia said.
“It has been taken off the democratic stage,” he said.
Scalia is part of a generally reliable four-member conservative bloc on the Court that includes Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. The minority of four occasionally becomes a majority when joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
After Scalia’s 40-minute speech, protesters in the balcony of the chapel where he spoke unfurled a banner reading, “There can be no justice in the court of the conqueror” and flung dozens of condoms carrying pro-gay rights and pro-abortion messages.
“That’s very persuasive,” Scalia told the protesters.
Asked by a questioner about the Supreme Court decision ending the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, Scalia repeated the response he has given before.
“Get over it. It’s a long time ago,” he said.
Scalia criticized the Senate’s confirmation process for justices.
“I was confirmed, believe it or not, 98 to nothing,” he said. “What’s changed?”
Scalia said the standards for judging justices has taken a new turn in the past quarter century, producing a “horrible confirmation process.”
“Is this person a good lawyer, a modicum of judicial demeanor, an honest person: That’s all fine and good but that’s not the most important thing,” he said. “The most important thing is, ‘Is this person going to write the new Constitution that I like?’”