During his recent speech at the University of California at Hastings, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia shared with students his belief that “you don’t need the Constitution to reflect the views of current society,” and stated that he interprets the Constitution “the way it was understood by society at the time.” In so doing, Scalia, a clear originalist, gives his opinion to the big question: Should the Constitution be interpreted with the original intent of its creators?

Interpreting the Constitution in a manner consistent with the document’s original intent poses a distinct advantage. It deters judges from unfettered discretion to inject their personal values into the interpretive process and protects against arbitrary changes in constitutional laws. President Thomas Jefferson stated that if the Constitution, by way of interpretation, can be changed by the simple decree of a judge, the document will be “a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary which they may twist and shape into any form they please.”

I’m of the opinion that interpreting the Constitution to reflect our Founding Fathers’ original intent holds theoretical advantages. But I also believe that absolute adherence to the literal words of the document would thwart our ability to apply the wisdom of the Constitution to matters relevant to today’s society.

At the same time, if one views “interpretation” as the inferred meaning of words memorialized at a particular period in time, the questions would then become: is the act of “reading into” those words essential? If so, to whom do we owe the benefit of such interpretation? In other words, do we seek to derive the meaning of the written words as viewed by the average person in today’s society, or by the average person at the time the laws were passed (or the collective intent of the voters who passed them)?

By entrusting the original framers with the authority to draft the Constitution, it’s likely that past members of society anticipated that the intent of the drafters would remain relevant. Assuming that’s the case, I believe that we’re required to interpret the document in a way which best preserves the Founding Fathers’ literal words, but only to the extent that wouldn’t result in wholly absurd results when applied to today’s society. But is this realistic if a more modern interpretation would best benefit the people?

Scalia, almost as though he was responding to my unasked questions, said in a speech given at the University of Vermont that “It’s not always easy to figure out what the provision meant when it was adopted … I don’t say (interpreting by original intent) is perfect. I just say it’s better than anything else.”

It should be noted that members of today’s society can change the Constitution through a formal amendment process. By following this procedure, the propriety of any proposed amendment is put to the test and concerns about arbitrary interpretation decreases.

But this doesn’t entirely resolve the basic question of whether a challenged constitutional provision should be interpreted through the eyes of the original drafters. With deep respect for history and our Founding Fathers, I answer that question in the negative. I believe that the Constitution was created to survive time. But to truly do so, the document must be flexible enough to endure evolutionary changes and responsive enough to remain relevant.

Phoenix Voorhies is an LSA sophomore.

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