In keynote remarks at the WMACCA Annual Meeting, Justice Antonin Scalia explained his approach to constitutional interpretation -- “originalism” -- and challenged the arguments of proponents of a “living Constitution that it has to grow with the society it governs or it will become brittle and snap. You believe that?”
“The Constitution is not a living organism. It is a legal document,” said Justice Scalia. Its “rigidity” serves a "stabilizing effect on society."
As an example, he cited the debate over the constitutionality of the death penalty. Noting that it was “the only penalty imposed when a felony was committed” at the time the Eighth Amendment was adopted, he questioned how some of his colleagues on the Supreme Court can argue that the death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. If our society wishes to outlaw the death penalty, it should not be done by judges as a matter of constitutional interpretation, Justice Scalia said, but through the legislative process. “Persuade your fellow citizens that it's a good idea and pass a law.”
“You cannot treat pre-existing phenomena different than they were treated when the Constitution was adopted,” he said.
“If you are not going with the original meaning of the Constitution, what criterion are you going to use? Either you try to find out what the American people thought when they adopted it, or you tell your judges, ‘you decide whether there should be a right to this, that, or another, and when,’ ” the Justice argued. “To the non-originalist, every day is a new day. It is absolute madness to turn this over to people who are good lawyers, but have no special expertise in ethics and philosophy.”
Justice Scalia was greeted warmly by a capacity crowd of 275 persons at the WMACCA Annual Meeting.