Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia routinely pretends that his approach to the law is merely to follow the clear language of the Constitution, and anyone who does not reach the same conclusions he does must be doing it wrong. In truth, however, Scalia’s rhetoric far more often just exposes how simplistic his vision of the Constitution truly is. Consider a speech he gave earlier this week at a conservative think tank:
Scalia calls himself a ‘‘textualist’’ and, as he related to a few hundred people who came to buy his new book and hear him speak in Washington the other day, that means he applies the words in the Constitution as they were understood by the people who wrote and adopted them.
So Scalia parts company with former colleagues who have come to believe capital punishment is unconstitutional. The framers of the Constitution didn’t think so and neither does he.
‘‘The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state,’’ Scalia said at the American Enterprise Institute.
This is the opposite of true, at least for someone who claims to take the text of the Constitution seriously. Take, for example, the death penalty. The Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments,” but it provides no other guidance on just how vicious a punishment must be to become “cruel” or how uncommon it must be to become “unusual.” Does the fact that the death penalty is increasingly rare in the United States meet the threshold of unconstitutionality? The Constitution doesn’t say.
Similarly, both abortion bans and bans on particular sex acts were held unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, the relevant part of which provides that “[n]o State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” What are the “privileges and immunities of citizens?” How much “process” are people “due”? Why is it a denial of the “equal protection of the laws” for the government to refuse to hire someone because of their race or gender, but not because they performed poorly in college or have an unimpressive resume? The text of the Constitution does not answer these questions.
Scalia’s answer is that rights protected in the Constitution must be understood exactly as they were understood at the time they were ratified, but there’s also nothing in the document itself which suggests that “unusual” punishments are those that were unusual 200 years ago and not those that are unusual now, or that the amount of “process” that people are “due” is the amount that they were given in the 1860s. Indeed, if anything, the Constitution’s text suggests the opposite. The framers were perfectly capable of being very precise about which rights they wanted to protect when they wanted to be — just read the Third Amendment for an example. When they chose, for example, to use words whose scope would naturally change over time — something that is common today may be unusual 50 years from today — that suggests that they wanted the scope of those rights to match that natural process.
Of course, the Constitution doesn’t always use flowing or ambiguous language and when it speaks precisely judges are wrong to read their own preferences into language that does not support their views. Unfortunately, Scalia is hardly a model of textual loyalty in such instances. Nor is he particularly loyal to his notion that the words of the Constitution should keep the meaning the founding generation would have understood them to have. The Constitution gives Congress power to “regulate commerce … among the several states.” And one of the ratifiers of the Constitution explained in the very first decision to interpret these words that there is “no sort of trade” that the words “regulate Commerce” do not apply to and that the power to “regulate” something “implies in its nature full power over the thing to be regulated.” Yet Scalia voted to strike down the Affordable Care Act, a law that regulates trade in health care.
No one who takes the text of the Constitution seriously can reach the decision he reached in that case.