A Strict Destructionist

Taking Note

BEHIND ATTORNEY GENERAL Edwin Meese III's seemingly innocent calls for a stricter interpretation the Constitution lies a fiercely conservative political program. His present campaign against the judiciary pretends to be faithful to the Constitution but really masks an attempt to remove the impediment which the judiciary poses to Reagan's right-wing agenda.

The cornerstone of Meese's argument is that justices must read the Constitution narrowly. They must search for and interpret its words according to the intentions of those who wrote it. It sounds deceptively simple.

Certainly, it is difficult to figure out what, specifically, the founders meant in the broad principles which they wrote into the Constitution. The founders often disagreed among themselves on key issues, and the Constitution consequently embodies numerous compromises, rather than a single original intent. And certainly Madison and company didn't have an opinion on 20th century questions.

THE MORE dangerous aspect of the Meese doctrine is the implicit idea that the Constitution is a static document. To the attorney general, the founders' specific views and opinions--rather than the broad conceptions of government and rights which they put down in the Constitution--are binding upon American society throughout the generations. If a right did not exist in the 18th century, it is unwarranted judicial activism for a court to decide that it exists now. Hence Meese denounces the application of the Bill of Rights to the states and rejects the Miranda decision.

With his argument that "any valid theory of Constitutional adjudication must be rooted in the text as illuminated by the intentions of those who wrote, proposed, and ratified the Constitution's articles and amendments," Meese reaches outside the very Constitution to which he argues we should be 100 percent faithful. For the specific goals and the specific intentions of the founders themselves are not in the text itself; one must read their letters and works to discern what they had in mind about specific issues. Yet Meese holds that their beliefs about specific policies should be the cornerstone of American Constitutional law.


Meese's doctrine is no more restrained or apolitical than that of his opponent on this issue, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. Despite his proclaimed Constitutional piety, Meese merely seeks a backward-looking judiciary.

If a question falls under an ambiguous clause of the Constitution, it must, by Meese's scheme, be interpreted narrowly. And it just so happens that the more narrowly a court interprets a question, the more reluctant it will be to find violations of, and to extend, individual rights.

The heart of the matter, then, is that an objective judge will ultimately be a hangin' judge, who carefully avoids extending rights beyond where they stood in 1787.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, Meese's attack on the courts represents one punch in the administration's two fisted attack on civil liberties and broad guarantees of rights. In an article in The New York Times, Justice Department public relations man Terry Eastland unintentionally elucidated the real intentions of Meese and the Reagan Administration.

According to Eastland, the framers of the Constitution and the 14th Amendment did not "contemplate sexual equality." Thus, courts should refrain from extending equal rights to women. Reagan, however, in his repeated attacks on the Equal Rights Amendment, has claimed that the ERA is redundant.

Since Meese believes the "ideal of human dignity" and "the rights of equal citizenship" are not explicit in the letter of the Constitution, by his logic it follows that such concepts should not influence court decisions. But such an inflexible view of the Constitution renders it a tool for political conservatives, who can then use the supreme law of the land to justify an erosion of individual rights. This view mocks the founders; it uses their ideas to support a backward-looking political agenda.

The spirit, as well as the letter, of the Constitution must be taken into consideration when passing judgment on questions of rights. Meese sees no use for the spirit of the law, and his interpretation of the Constitution is consequently as narrow-minded as it is narrow.

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