Students and residents packed inside Rackham Auditorium yesterday gave thunderous applause while student protestors clamored outside, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia delivered a lecture on constitutional interpretation.
The famously conservative judge, who has served on the court since 1986, came to give the Law School’s DeRoy lecture, which regularly attracts noteworthy figures in law. Scalia’s lecture concentrated on his view that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning when it was originally written.
“The real fault line in constitutional interpretation nowadays is not between conservatives and liberals. It is the philosophy of originalism, which gives the Constitution the meaning it had when it was adopted,” Scalia said to a crowd of more than a thousand people. “This is not some weird new philosophy. … It is indeed a minority view now, but it used to be orthodox.”
The justice expressed distaste for the popular contemporary “living Constitution” which views the Constitution as a document that should be modified over time to meet the changing needs of American people. Scalia said despite public opinion, the originalism system is very flexible. “If you want to change something, you should persuade your fellow citizens and pass a law in your state. The state laws can be changed; Supreme Court rulings can’t be changed.”
Scalia said items not mentioned in the Constitution, such as abortion, should not be ruled on by the court, saying instead that the states should decide on these issues individually.
“People shouldn’t think that a living Constitution always leads to greater freedom. We can take away rights as well as create them,” Scalia said, warning the audience of the dangers of a living Constitution.
During the lecture, Scalia was interrupted by a group of protestors who silently carried signs through the auditorium. The audience responded to the protestors with a combination of applause and jeers, and Scalia joked, “Is this an accepted form of free speech? Can I expect another parade after this one?”
Erin Schwartz, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, commented on the march through the auditorium. “We came in silently and anonymously, and we brought in signs to demonstrate the injustices of Scalia’s work in the court system.”
Scalia continued his lecture and addressed several arguments against originalism, including that figuring out what the founding fathers meant when writing the Constitution is for historians and not lawyers. “Originalism is not perfect, and some cases can be hard to figure out. However, under originalism the most controversial cases are a piece of cake,” he said.
Scalia cited the death penalty, saying that when the Constitution was written it was the only punishment for felonies, so the death penalty must be constitutional. “Every question is difficult if you’re not an originalist. (Originalism) gives you an awful lot of answers,” he said.
Although Scalia is a vocal opponent of affirmative action and opposed the University in its admissions lawsuit last year, he did not address the issue during his speech. But during a question-and-answer session following the lecture, Scalia was asked how he could oppose race-conscious admissions and consider it acceptable for him to attend Harvard law school.
“I did not attend Harvard because I am an Italian-American, I attended because I met the intellectual standards of the school,” he said. “There’s a good deal of evidence which has found that it harms people to push them into an academic environment they are not prepared for.”
Scalia ended his lecture by encouraging the audience to go back to an originalist view of the Constitution by voting for judges who share this ideology. “Otherwise the majority will decide the Constitution’s meaning, and that’s not what the Constitution is for,” he said.
Protestors from the Stonewall Democrats, College Democrats and Students for Choice held signs and chanted outside after the lecture.
“We think that Scalia has made a lot of decisions that severely limit, or he has said he would like to make decisions, that would severely limit women’s choices,” said Music School junior Ashwini Hardikar, a board member of Students for Choice. “He has voted to uphold sodomy laws and ‘Don’t-ask, Don’t-tell’ policies, and to strike down the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policies. All of these things together and right-wing ideology in general is what brings us here.”
— Staff Reporter James V. Dowd contributed to this report.