Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent interview with New York magazine has gotten a lot of attention, but for the wrong reasons. Many reactions center on his “shocking” revelation that he believes in the existence of the Devil. (Does it take a secular Jew to point out that this standard Catholic doctrine should be no more shocking than the belief that there’s a hell in addition to a heaven?) Better-informed observers will note with surprise the acerbic jurist’s repudiation of his “fainthearted originalism.” Nowadays, he said, he tries to be a “stouthearted” originalist, one who is willing to “take the bitter with the sweet.”
That approach to interpreting the Constitution would be a refreshing break with Scalia’s past, for his is not the track record of a consistent originalist. Yes, the good justice has been faithful and true to the original understanding of the Constitution’s terms in many cases – standing firm against Obamacare’s audacious expansion of federal power in NFIB v. Sebelius, for instance. Yet his heart was much less stout in the 2010 case of McDonald v. Chicago, which extended the right to keep and bear arms to the states. In that case, Scalia fell back on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause – and the very doctrine of “substantive due process” on which he has himself heaped such scorn – to “incorporate” the Second Amendment against the states.
A real originalist would have taken Justice Clarence Thomas’s tack, resurrecting the long-neglected Privileges or Immunities Clause. That Clause was widely understood at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1868 to empower the federal government to stop states from violating the rights of recently freed slaves, and by extension of all Americans. Yet in the Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clause didn’t restrict states’ police powers, but instead implicated only the rights attendant to U.S. (as opposed to state) citizenship.
That ruling, which unfortunately was never overturned, prompted later courts to resort clumsily to the questionable substantive due process doctrine to secure individual rights against the states. (To be sure, there has to be some substance to the Due Process – kangaroo courts don’t satisfy constitutional requirements – but that wasn’t the provision intended to secure natural rights.) By reviving the Privileges and Immunities Clause, the Court could have put those rights on a much sounder textual footing and return federal constitutional law in this area to its original meaning. Instead, Scalia took the easy way out and “acquiesced” in a 140-year-old precedent “as much as I think it’s wrong” (quotes from the McDonald oral argument). The mind boggles.
Justice Scalia has written, “It is no easy task to wean the public, the professoriate, and (especially) the judiciary away from [living constitutionalism,] a seductive and judge-empowering philosophy.” If his jurisprudence is any indication, however, getting originalism’s loudest champions to adhere to it consistently seems to be no easier.