Advice from Justice Clarence Thomas

Last spring in Washington, D.C. at the Federalist Society’s National Student Symposium, Justice Thomas told a room full of law students to “get rid of [their] pessimism.” Justice Thomas, your words have been ringing in my ears. Admittedly, many aspects of America’s contemporary legal and political landscape engender a lingering pessimism in me. I’d like to step back a moment from this divisive arena we encounter every day and briefly discuss a few points of optimism. (more…)

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On Originalism and the First Amendment

Political cartoon from 1888 showing little demons with names like "garbled News," "Paid Puffery," and "Boastful Lies" emerging from the mouth of a printing press.
The Evil Spirits of the Modern Daily Press (Puck Magazine 1888)

On October 18, 2018, I participated in a presentation entitled “Free Speech and Originalist Jurisprudence” at the University of Wisconsin-Stout along with Professor Alan Bigel (UW-Lacrosse).  The event was part of Free Speech Week sponsored by the Center for Study of Institutions and Innovation.  What follows is a copy of my prepared remarks.

“In December 1783, George Washington gave a toast at a dinner celebrating the formal dissolution of the Revolutionary Army.  He did not use his toast to offer a tribute to individual liberty.  Nor did he sing the praises of limited government.  Instead, his toast was a simple expression of what he hoped the future would bring to our new nation. He raised his glass and he said: “Competent powers to Congress for general purposes.”

I wrote that in a 2012 blog post, and I received an immediate and angry response from a lawyer who denied that George Washington ever said such a thing, and who rejected the idea that George Washington ever supported a powerful national government.  This well documented historical fact did not fit within the reader’s understanding of the original intent of our U.S. Constitution — and therefore the reader simply could not believe that the quotation could be accurate.

The response of this reader reflects the fact that, for many persons, originalism is primarily a culturally expressive theory – a theory that expresses a culture that reflects conservative political views, moral traditionalism, and a tendency towards libertarianism. (Jamal Greene, Nathaniel Persily & Stephen Ansolabehere, “Profiling Originalism,” 111 COLUMBIA L. REV. 356, 400-402 (2011)).

However, originalism as a theory was not invented in order to provide a vehicle for cultural expression.  Instead, the goal of originalism is to provide an interpretive method for objectively defining the meaning of the U.S. Constitution.

Originalism is an interpretive theory that understands a legal text to retain the meaning it had at the moment when it was enacted or ratified, until such time as the law is amended or repealed. (Chris Cooke, “Textualism is Not Strict Constructionism is Not Originalism,“leastdangerousblog.com, July 8, 2018).  It holds that the discoverable public meaning of the U.S. Constitution at the time of its initial adoption should be regarded as authoritative for purposes of later constitutional interpretation. (Keith Whittington, “Originalism: A Critical Introduction,” 82 FORDHAM L. REV. 375, 377 (2013)).

There is an abundant historical record supporting the conclusion that the United States Constitution was promoted by a core group of political leaders in order to strengthen the national government, and that the Constitution was understood by the people during the ratification debate to do just that.

In rejecting this historical record, the lawyer who responded to my blog post revealed that he was more devoted to his favored myth of original meaning than he was to objectively weighing the available evidence of actual meaning. (more…)

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The Mirror of Racial Tyranny in The Civil Rights Cases

Political cartoon from the nineteenth century showing an African American holding a copy of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 while standing at the Gates of Heaven
This 19th Century Thomas Nast cartoon shows an African American at the Gates of Heaven, telling Saint Peter that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 opens all gates for him.  Nast’s caption calls on white churches to desegregate.

On the 135th Anniversary of the Supreme Court’s opinion in The Civil Rights Cases, it is worth reflecting on how that opinion — which came after Reconstruction but before Jim Crow—reflects the tensions at play today concerning how constitutional law can, through unrelenting formalism and a preference towards denying the power of the history of slavery and the salience of race, contributes to enduring white supremacy.
This week marks the 135th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883). While to some this is a mere historical footnote, the decision is worth remembering because it reflects the tensions at play today concerning how constitutional law can, through unrelenting formalism and a preference towards denying the salience of race, contributes to enduring structural oppression. The reasoning in The Civil Rights Cases is an object study in how to maintain white supremacy—and a mirror to our society today.

The opinion overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It sought to protect recently freed African-American slaves from discrimination in the use of “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement.” In striking down this nineteenth-century public accommodations law, thus allowing private businesses to deny services to African Americans because of their race, Justice Joseph P. Bradley, speaking for the 8-1 Supreme Court majority, made three arguments. (more…)

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Two Supreme Court Experts Warn About Impact of Partisan Nomination Fights

Two experts on the United States Supreme Court expressed concerns Thursday during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School that the level of partisanship in confirmation processes for justices is causing damage to the court itself.

David A. Strauss, the Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, said, “Things have become a lot more partisan in a way that I think is really damaging for the court as an institution.”

Strauss said, that, even though partisanship has long been a part of confirming court nominees, among senators overall, “there was a consensus that we really have to kind of make sure that we take care of the court.” That meant approving well-qualified candidates who would be respected and do their jobs well, with less attention paid to their partisanship. That has eroded, he said.

“I think it has taken a turn for the much more partisan,” Strauss said. ”What’s really troubling about it . . . Once that happens, it is very hard to dig yourself out of it.” (more…)

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Supreme Court Navigates Two Water Disputes, With More On The Way

On Monday the Supreme Court heard arguments in two interstate water allocation disputes, Florida v. Georgia and Texas v. New Mexico and Colorado. The Court has also accepted a third such case, Mississippi v. Tennessee, and assigned it to a special master. The cases will force the Court to examine the The Rio Grande River near the USA-Mexico borderbalance between economic development and environmental protection, the federal role in state water disputes, and whether groundwater and surface water allocation should be governed by the same decisional rules.

The trio of pending cases belies the Court’s expressed preference for such disputes to be resolved by interstate compacts entered into pursuant to the Compact Clause (Article I, Section 10, Clause 3). It has previously commented that it approaches interstate water disputes with caution given the “complicated and delicate questions” involved, and has advised “expert administration [via a compact] rather than judicial imposition of a hard and fast rule.”[1] Nevertheless, in these cases at least, an old adage often attributed to Mark Twain trumped the Court’s advice: “whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over.”

(more…)

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