Scalia urges literalism

The Constitution is not a living document, although many courts and legal experts treat it as such today, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued at a Yale Political Union debate on Thursday.

A staunch conservative and self-proclaimed “originalist,” Scalia said the Constitution should be interpreted in terms of its text and the intentions of its framers, not in the context of personal beliefs or current societal conventions. While some students at the speech said they disagreed with the justice’s argument, many said his eloquence and wit at the podium made his presentation compelling.

Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at a Yale Political Union debate Thursday, arguing that the Constitution should be understood in its historical context.
Adam Trettel
Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at a Yale Political Union debate Thursday, arguing that the Constitution should be understood in its historical context.

“The Constitution is a dead document,” Scalia said. “It is an enduring document that does not change, or at least does not change at the whim of the Supreme Court, but rather it changes as provided in its text as amendments are adopted.”

The justice argued that the idea of a living Constitution restricts freedoms, as judicial decisions can limit rights as much as they can protect them. Instead of asking courts to rule based on the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” — as the Supreme Court said in a 1958 ruling and has held since — Congress should legislate to reflect the concerns of the times, he said.

“I have no idea what the evolving standards of decency are,” Scalia said. “I am afraid to inquire.”

Scalia, who was originally slated to speak last fall, drew an over-capacity crowd in the Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, where scores of students were turned away by Yale Police Department officers after the auditorium filled. YPU President Roger Low ’07 said the Yale Law School did not allow the YPU to use the larger Levinson Auditorium for Scalia’s speech, as it did for Rev. Al Sharpton’s YPU address last month.

Scalia mixed legal argument with attempts at wit, drawing several roars of laughter from the crowd. He said originalism keeps everyone, even conservatives, in check.

“[Because of originalism] I cannot do the wicked conservative things I would want to do to this society,” Scalia said.

Scalia, who worked for the Nixon and Ford administrations, was appointed to the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and was nominated by Reagan four years later to the Supreme Court. He gained a 98-0 Senate confirmation and became the first Italian-American to serve on the Supreme Court. Because of the shift to what he called a highly politicized confirmation process, Scalia said, he doubts he would get 60 votes if considered today.

Chandler Coggins ’10 said he agreed with Scalia’s approach to Constitutional interpretation and thought the justice presented an effective argument that proved persuasive even with a mostly liberal crowd.

“I was already in his camp, so, for me, he was preaching to the choir,” he said. “But the most impressive aspect of his speaking style was how he really won the audience over.”

After Scalia’s speech, student speakers took the floor to argue in support and opposition of his assertion. Many students who said they disagreed with Scalia praised Sophie Brill ’07, the first opposition speaker, for putting up a valiant fight against Scalia’s impressive oratory.

Sophie Wolfram ’10 said while she disagreed with Scalia’s views, she said his remarks were more thought-provoking than previous arguments she has heard against the prevalent interpretation of the document.

“There aren’t very many people whom I’m going to listen to with as much respect as someone who’s been on the Supreme Court for 20 years,” she said. “He didn’t sell me on it, but he made me listen more than anyone has before.”

Sam Purdy ’10 said Scalia made him rethink his view on how the Constitution should be interpreted.

“He’s a brilliant man and he certainly showed that off tonight,” Purdy said. “I don’t think he was just putting up smoke and mirrors … I left thinking he’s less of a conservative nut.”

Regardless of whether they agreed with his views, many students said Scalia’s witty and at times self-deprecating rhetoric was a departure from the somewhat villainous reputation the justice carries with liberals.

“He was fun, for a conservative,” Chris Wihlidal ’09 said.

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