Friday, June 27, 2008

Originalist sin

"It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."
So wrote Antonin Scalia in his dissenting opinion in Boumediene v. Bush (as noted earlier), which permits detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere to challenge the legality of their imprisonment by filing writs of habeas corpus in federal courts.

A few days later, with no apparent sense of irony, the Supreme Court released Scalia's opinion for the 5-4 majority in District of Columbia v. Heller, which invalidated D.C.'s ban on handguns. Scalia neglected to mention that the result in Heller is absolutely certain to "cause more Americans to be killed."

While I can't say I've gotten through all 157 pages of Heller, it's interesting to see how Scalia has parsed the 2nd Amendment's reference to "[a] well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..." In it he finds, through breathtaking contortions, an individual right to bear arms rather than a collective right, as the phrase would plainly suggest.

It's a familiar display of sophistry and outcome jurisprudence, armed to the teeth (bad pun) with cites to often-obscure sources (including a "Linguists' Brief") over two centuries. It's as if Scalia thinks an opinion creaking under the strain of so many sources would compensate for the feeble logic of his position.

Scalia's meticulous resort to centuries of legislative history in Heller directly conflicts with his long hostility to reliance on legislative and historical sources:
It says to the bar that even an "unambiguous (and) unequivocal" statute can never be dispositive; that, presumably under penalty of malpractice liability, the oracles of legislative history, far into the dimmy past, must always be consulted. This undermines the clarity of law, and condemns litigants (who, unlike us, must pay for it out of their own pockets) to subsidizing historical research by lawyers. The greatest defect of legislative history is its illegitimacy. We are governed by laws, not by the intentions of legislators. . . . But not the least of the defects of legislative history is its indeterminacy. If one were to search for an interpretative technique that, on the whole, was more likely to confuse than to clarify, one could hardly find a more promising candidate than legislative history. [Conroy v. Aniskoff, 507 U.S. 511 (1993).]
Or, as Scalia wrote a few years earlier, "the main danger in judicial interpretation of the Constitution — or, for that matter, in judicial interpretation of any law — is that the judges will mistake their own predilections for the law." [1]

Scalia's contortions evoke Harry Frankfurt's notion of bullshit:
"His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."
Scalia's textualism, it seems, depends entirely on the context.


[1] Antonin Scalia "Originalism: The Lesser Evil," 57 University of Cincinnati Law Review 849, 851 (1989) [as quoted here].

[A version of this entry was cross-posted as
a comment on Lawyers, Guns and Money.]

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