Scalia Defends Original Meaning

Published On Thursday, October 02, 2008 11:48 PM

Crimson Staff Writer

Supreme Court Justice Antonin G. Scalia defended constitutional originalism at Harvard Law School yesterday, punctuating the final moments of his speech by shouting “I don’t have to prove that originalism is perfect!” to a packed, applause-filled room.

Scalia, who graduated magna cum laude from the Law School in 1960, delivered the inaugural Herbert W. Vaughn Lecture, a biannual address that will focus on the “founding principles and core doctrines” of the U.S. Constitution.

In his speech, entitlted “Methodology of Originalism,” Scalia argued that justices should strive to base their decisions on the original meaning of the law.

Within the Supreme Court, Scalia is one of the leading proponents of constitutional originalism. He opposes the concept of a “living Constitution,” that the Constitution’s meaning should be adapated to fit the needs of contemporary society.

In the speech, Scalia invoked the era before Earl Warren became Chief Justice in the mid-20th century, when the standard view held that the Constitution should be “no different from any other legal text, such as a statute.”

“It bears a static meaning which does not change from generation to generation,” Scalia said.

Although Scalia did not entirely disavow the importance of historical context, he criticized the non-originalists’ interpretation of the Constitution, which may use moral and philosophical arguments.

“Lawyers [and judges] are trained to determine the meaning of texts which sometimes require historical inquiry,” Scalia said. “They are not trained to be moral philosophers.”

The Justice’s remarks drew the warmest response during the question and answer portion of his lecture, as he employed humor to field the audience’s inquiries.

When an audience member suggested that one could hypothetically own large pieces of weaponry under the ruling of the 2008 case District of Columbia vs. Heller, which upheld an individual’s right to bear arms for private use, Scalia responded, “Bearing arms—you can’t bear a tank.”

“You can’t bear a cannon or a mortar of the sort in use in 1781, so it didn’t even the playing field between the citizens and the standing army,” he said.

Although many audience members said they had mixed views of originalism, most agreed that Scalia’s speech had more than met their expectations.

“He’s a funny, personable guy. I can’t believe I was 20 feet away from Justice Scalia,” said first-year law student Michael L. Watson.