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Senate majority leader Bill Frist (far left) and majority whip Mitch McConnell (far right) meet with judicial nominees Janice Rogers Brown (left center) and Priscilla Owens at the US Capitol on Tuesday. Last week, the Republicans formally began their push to change the rules on filibusters that have prevented some of President Bush's judicial nominees from coming to a vote before the full Senate.
Senate majority leader Bill Frist (far left) and majority whip Mitch McConnell (far right) meet with judicial nominees Janice Rogers Brown (left center) and Priscilla Owens at the US Capitol on Tuesday. Last week, the Republicans formally began their push to change the rules on filibusters that have prevented some of President Bush's judicial nominees from coming to a vote before the full Senate. (Getty Images Photo / Win McNamee)

Constitutional dreaming

Page 2 of 4 -- But ACS programs director Bill Yeomans says the effort is modeled on the success conservatives have had in developing a few clear ''talking points'' on constitutional law. The primary goal is building a network of lawyers, scholars, and judges who communicate more effectively with the public.

''We're not talking about amending the Constitution here,'' says ACS executive director Lisa Brown. Rather, the emphasis is on ''interpreting it in ways that we think are more in the spirit of the founding values'' - and then promoting that vision to the American people.

Indeed, if the discussion at Yale is any indication, many on the left are taking more seriously the idea, after years of relying on the courts to expand legal rights, that there is only one court of appeals open to them now: the court of public opinion.

. . .

In the 1980s, when Ed Meese was Attorney General, the Justice Department drafted a series of documents intended to give federal litigators guidelines on the Reagan administration's view of constitutional issues. One 1988 report detailed the conservative philosophy of ''originalism,'' or interpreting the Constitution to mean only what it was understood to mean at the time of its drafting; thus, ''government attorneys should advance constitutional arguments based only on this ‘original meaning.'''

The report advanced the argument that courts have interpreted the powers of Congress too broadly and directed litigators to urge courts to restrain federal power in favor of states and localities. Meanwhile, another document, titled ''The Constitution in the Year 2000,'' considered 15 issues central to the conservative agenda and noted that the ''critical'' factor in shaping constitutional law in coming years would be ''the values and philosophies'' of those selected for the federal judiciary.

Taken together, says Dawn Johnsen, an ACS board member and law professor at Indiana University (who came across the little-known reports during research), the Meese reports ''more or less said, ‘We want to remake Constitutional law.'''

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The left wants to do it, too. But how?

Many liberals and progressives, who tend to see the Constitution as designed for the very purpose of protecting the rights and liberties of minorities, take it as a given that courts are the only reliable defenders of unpopular rights. As participants at the Yale conference imagined the day when ''we'll have our people on the bench,'' as one put it, a wish list of legal changes emerged: an end to the death penalty and to the disenfranchisement of ex-felons, reductions in sentences of drug offenders, strong defense of the rights of immigrants and foreign nationals, and protection of civil liberties in wartime. Some spoke for more restraints on the executive branch and applauded recent Supreme Court rulings against presidential power to hold ''enemy combatants'' in detention without trial.   Continued...

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Former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who promoted the idea of ''original intent'' in a series of documents written by the Justice Department in the Reagan era.
Former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who promoted the idea of ''original intent'' in a series of documents written by the Justice Department in the Reagan era.
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