menu

Scalia’s Convenient Originalism

Scalia’s Convenient Originalism October 9, 2013

Jennifer Senior has a fascinating interview with Justice Antonin Scalia in New York magazine. I was going to write a post about it, but there are so many statements in it that need to be critiqued that I decided to break it up into a number of different posts rather than one incredibly long one. This one is about his claim to being a real originalist now:

You’ve described yourself as a fainthearted originalist. But really, how fainthearted?

I described myself as that a long time ago. I repudiate that.

So you’re a stouthearted one.

I try to be. I try to be an honest originalist! I will take the bitter with the sweet! What I used “fainthearted” in reference to was—

Flogging, right?

Flogging. And what I would say now is, yes, if a state enacted a law permitting flogging, it is immensely stupid, but it is not unconstitutional. A lot of stuff that’s stupid is not unconstitutional. I gave a talk once where I said they ought to pass out to all federal judges a stamp, and the stamp says—Whack! [Pounds his fist.]—STUPID BUT ­CONSTITUTIONAL. Whack! [Pounds again.] STUPID BUT ­CONSTITUTIONAL! Whack! ­STUPID BUT ­CONSTITUTIONAL … [Laughs.] And then somebody sent me one.

I would argue that Scalia is neither a faint-hearted or stout-hearted originalist. He is a convenient originalist. He’s an originalist when it leads to the result he wants and he’s not an originalist when it doesn’t. His ruling in Raich is a perfect example. And he’s perfectly happy contradicting himself to reach the result he prefers. Just compare his ruling in Raich to his ruling in the challenge to the Affordable Care Act last year. In Raich he agreed that the interstate commerce clause gave Congress the power to regulate the growth of marijuana for personal use — an action that is neither interstate nor commerce — despite that being legal under state law. In the ACA case he argued that the interstate commerce clause did not give Congress the power to regulate the health insurance market, which is, by any definition, a matter of interstate commerce. Ironically, Scalia is exactly what he has for decades accused liberals of being, a results-oriented judge. Thomas is a far more consistent originalist than Scalia.


Browse Our Archives