Brown and Originalism

Published May 11, 2005

National Review Online

The Left invokes the Orwellian euphemism of the “living Constitution” as it promotes and applauds lawless judicial decisions, like Roe v. Wade, that have no conceivable basis in the text or structure of the real Constitution. The “metastasizing Constitution” would be a far more honest moniker. For the real living Constitution — the Constitution that came to life in 1789 and that grew to full fruition with the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments in the aftermath of the Civil War — is suffering from foreign cells metastasizing in its vital organs. The only means of restoring its health is a vigorous dose of originalist medicine.

The Left’s “killer” argument against an originalist reading of the Constitution is that adherence to the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment purportedly would not have yielded the just result — the end to the evil of segregated public schools — mandated by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Margaret Talbot’s interesting but flawed profile of Justice Scalia and originalism in a recent issue of the New Yorker (which I wrote about here) is typical: The only “way to get to Brown,” she asserts, is “to embrace the ‘living Constitution.’ ” Why’s that? “[I]t’s hard to see an originalist justification” for Brown, since, she claims, the “same Congress that passed the Fourteenth Amendment segregated Washington schools.” Justice Scalia “sometimes acknowledges as much, saying that a faulty — that is, a non-originalist — method can occasionally produce good results, a Scalian variation on ‘Even a broken watch is right twice a day.’ ” And further, she tells us, liberal legal scholar Cass Sunstein has declared that a “doctrinaire originalist” would reject Brown. Case closed. No need for further discussion.

But wait: Every one of Talbot’s assertions is off the mark. First, the 37th Congress created segregated public schools for black children in D.C. in 1862, but it was a later, different Congress — the 39th — that in 1866 proposed the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1868. As the brilliant scholar (and now tenth-circuit judge) Michael McConnell explains in his 1995 Virginia Law Review article “Originalism and the Desegregation Decisions”: “At no time after the Fourteenth Amendment did Congress vote in favor of segregated schools in the District [of Columbia] (although Congress appropriated money for the segregated schools that already existed).” In addition, the restrictions of the Fourteenth Amendment apply only to states, not to Congress, so congressional action with respect to D.C. schools provides a shaky foundation for any inference as to the contemporaneous understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Second, what Talbot characterizes as an acknowledgment by Justice Scalia is no such thing. To make the obvious point that non-originalist decisions — that is, judges doing whatever they want — can produce good results in no way implies that originalism would not yield those same results. To use Talbot’s analogy: That a broken clock is right twice a day doesn’t mean a working clock is wrong twice a day.

Third, just as one may rightly be suspicious when liberals instruct conservatives on what “genuine” conservatives would do, one need not accept Cass Sunstein as the final word on how an originalist would decide Brown.

If Talbot found it “hard to see an originalist justification” for ending state-sponsored segregation, it’s because she wasn’t looking in the right places. As early as 1880 — a mere twelve years after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment — the Supreme Court in Strauder v. West Virginia read the Fourteenth Amendment as “declaring that the law in the States shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the States, and, in regard to the colored race, for whose protection the amendment was primarily designed, that no discrimination shall be made against them by law because of their color.”

Even in its notorious 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the majority stated that the “object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law.” But then, in the sort of freewheeling non-originalist excursion that advocates of the phony “living Constitution” have come to celebrate, the majority looked to the mystery of the universe to assert that “in the nature of things” the Fourteenth Amendment “could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality.” By contrast, Justice Harlan’s celebrated dissent quoted Strauder and declared that the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to “remove[] the race line from our governmental systems.”

Further, as McConnell’s law-review article shows, in the years immediately following ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, as Congress acted to enact legislation enforcing the requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment, a substantial majority of both houses of Congress repeatedly voted to abolish segregation in the public schools. Although filibuster tactics and other procedural obstacles prevented ultimate passage of legislation abolishing segregated schools, McConnell demonstrates that these votes provide powerful evidence that the original understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment was that segregated public schools were unconstitutional.

Under an alternative originalist approach, as Judge Bork and others have argued, even if the ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment assumed that segregated public schools were consistent with equality, objective comparisons of facilities and resources had, by the time of Brown, long since disproved this assumption. Under this approach, an originalist opinion in Brown would therefore have concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment’s clear purpose of establishing racial equality under the law required an end to segregated schooling.

The legitimacy of originalism as the only proper method (or class of methods) of constitutional interpretation inheres in the very nature of the Constitution as law and does not depend on the results that originalism yields. Originalists will have disputes among themselves. But those who seek to discredit originalism by hiding behind Brown — the same people, by and large, who absurdly contend that the text of the Fourteenth Amendment stating that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” somehow should be twisted to guarantee rights to abortion and same-sex marriage — should hardly be presumed sound arbiters of how originalism should apply.

Edward Whelan is president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and directs EPPC’s program on the Constitution, the Courts, and the Culture. Whelan formerly served as a law clerk to Justice Scalia.

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