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Law Office History

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Great point by Sandy Levinson:

If one had any reason to believe that either Scalia or Stevens was a competent historian, then perhaps it would be worth reading the pages they write. But they are not. Both opinions exhibit the worst kind of “law-office history,” in which each side engages in shamelessly (and shamefully) selective readings of the historical record in order to support what one strongly suspects are pre-determined positions. And both Scalia and Stevens treat each other—and, presumably, their colleagues who signed each of the opinions—with basic contempt, unable to accept the proposition, second nature to professional historians, that the historical record is complicated and, indeed, often contradictory. Justice Stevens, for example, writes that anyone who reads the text of the Second Amendment and its history, plus a murky 1939 decision of the Court, will find “a clear answer” to the question of whether the Second Amendment supports a “right to possess and use guns for nonmilitary purposes.” This is simply foolish. Justice Stevens pays no real attention to a plethora of first-rate historical work written over the past decade that challenges this kind of foolish self-confidence, as is true also of Justice Scalia. There is no serious discussion, for example, of Saul Cornell’s fine book A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control, but many other examples could be offered, from various sides of the ideological spectrum.

Both Scalia and Stevens manifest what is worst about Supreme Court rhetoric, which is precisely the tone of sublime confidence when addressing even the most complex of issues. The late Victoria Geng once wrote a marvelous parody of Supreme Court decisions in which, among other things, the Court announced that “nature is more important than nurture.” We wouldn’t take such a declaration seriously. It is not clear why we should take much more seriously the kinds of over-confident declarations as to historical meaning that both Scalia and Stevens indulge in.

The one caveat is that I wouldn’t even say that it’s the “worst kind” of law office history; their historical analysis is actually considerably less perfunctory than most tendentious historical analysis in judicial opinions is. At any rate, it should be pretty clear that invoking originalism does little to constrain justices, not only because of irresolvable ambiguities in the historical record and the ability to use originalism’s ladder when dealing with the meaning of broad constitutional provisions, but because even on cases where a grand theory seems to produce fairly clear answers judges will ignore them if they conflict with strongly held policy preferences.

Meanwhile, Publius notes that exclusively relying on originalism would be undesirable even if it actually worked to substantially constrain judicial discretion.

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