The Salesmanship of Justice Scalia

Slate's blog on legal issues.
May 10 2008 2:39 PM

The Salesmanship of Justice Scalia

In case you living constitutionalists missed it, Dahlia just threw down the gauntlet at the end of


of the many charms of Justice Scalia on his book tour.

The problem, for those of us admittedly charmed but decidedly not persuaded by Scalia's [originalism] argument, is that Scalia has decided to make his case at a moment when there's no one with his charisma offering an opposing view. Justice Scalia's absolute certainty about his own constitutional worldview has benefited over the years from near radio silence from the court's liberal wing. The fuzzy echoes of Brennan's "living constitutionalism"—the notion that the Constitution evolves with social norms—have become too easy for him to parody. Without a really compelling legal theory from the court's liberals, and with his new willingness to be open and expansive for the cameras, it was virtually guaranteed that once Scalia uncorked his considerable charisma, his constitutional methods would appear to be the most plausible approach, if not the only one.

I admit, Dahlia, my first reaction was, yeah, Justice Scalia is camera-ready for sure, but it's hardly fair to say there's no one offering an opposing view.  There's Justice Breyer's book, as you mention. And the highly dynamic American Constitution Society (ACS) exists in significant part just for the purpose of developing charismatic opposition. Indeed, when I dashed over for a quick peek at the ACS Web site to see whether it had something to be invoked in its defense, I quickly came to the collection of papers by con law glitterati (including, inter alia , our own Jack Balkin) from a relatively recent symposium ACS sponsored on just what "living constitutionalism" is all about. One of my favorite sound bites was from Vanderbilt Professor Rebecca Brown, who put it with her usual eloquence:

The key to democratic legitimacy is the Constitution's ability to provide a structure within which the polity can continue to exercise its right to self-government, including giving voice to its own commitments of political morality. Thus, it is imperative that the rights-bearing terms of the Constitution be interpreted in a way that can change and expand with the values of each generation. Not only is a dynamic constitutionalism defensible, therefore, it is absolutely essential in order for the Constitution to maintain its democratic legitimacy.

But then I went back and reread your condemnatory paragraph and realized—your complaint isn't so much about substance, it's about salesmanship. No matter how smart Breyer may be, his "imagine a spherical cow"-type of hypothetical colloquialisms are just too rarified to break through the noise. The liberals have plenty of theories, but none has taken an undisputed place at the top. And the occasional Alan Dershowitz-type notwithstanding, profs are just profs. We need a justice or, say, a presidential candidate who can declare one concrete version of living constitutionalism the winner and wrap it up in a stylish new package that serves a progressive constitutional agenda for the new millennium.

Am I reading you right—is it more the who than the what? And then the biggie—is the only remedy in your view a new face on the bench? Or do you think there's just something about sales that liberals haven't learned?



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