THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION, an often vague political document written nearly two centuries ago, invites controversy. Still, there are certain facets of the polity it sets up we thought had been settled long ago. That is until last week, when Attorney General Edwin Meese III declared that the Supreme Court of the United States was not the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution. In a speech at Tulane University, America's highest-ranking law enforcement official asserted that the Court's decisions were not the supreme law of the land. Only the particular parties involved in cases decided by the Court, he said, are bound by its rulings.
Meese made a name for himself as a tough law-and-order prosecutor in San Diego. If implemented, though, his theory would undermine the rule of law and subvert social order across the land. It would allow citizens, officials and judges nationwide to ignore past High Court rulings and interpret the Constitution as they saw fit.
Meese only cited one Supreme Court case in his speech, Cooper v. Aaron. That 1958 ruling declared the Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education--barring school segregation--to be "the supreme law of the land." In other words, school segregation in any part of the country was outlawed. Meese, a graduate of Yale Law School, disagrees with that interpretation of the court's power.
Meese's attempt to undermine the central role of judicial review does not come as a surprise. It fits in with a pattern of using his office to undermine Supreme Court decisions he disagrees with--for instance, those guaranteeing the rights of the accused and of the oppressed. There is no reason why everyone should agree with those decisions. But the fight against them can not be led from the office of the attorney general.
Though Meese's politicization of his office is incompatible with his position as the nation's top law-enforcer, he serves at the request and pleasure of a president who condones his behavior. However, the attorney general's latest statement betrays a fundamental lack of respect for the basic traditions of American jurisprudence. While his views may be defensible in law school discussions, they do not belong in the Justice Department. He cannot be impeached from office, but his tenure in the Cabinet must come to an end. Ed Meese should resign from his office.
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