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writing for godot

Let's Hear it for Original Intent

Written by Steven Jonas   
Thursday, 10 December 2020 09:29

"Either this nation shall kill racism, or racism shall kill this nation." (S. Jonas, August, 2018)


As the Trumpublicans© bull their way to an extra Supreme Court Seat*, you are going to hear a lot about "Original Intent." "We want to make sure that the majority of Justices on the bench [would that they could be ALL ours] are committed to the Doctrine of Original Intent." That is that the Constitution should be interpreted in the context of the meanings of the language in which it was written over 230 years ago. The most prominent recent avatar of this approach was Justice Antonin Scalia. He was clearly devoted to the doctrine of "original intent" --- except when for political reasons he wasn't. See, e.g., his majority opinion in "Heller," on gun control, which opened the modern floodgates for the NRA and the gun industry for which they are the shills. The Second Amendment begins with the words "A well-regulated militia." Giving permission for private ownership of guns in the home had nothing to do with militias, well-regulated or not. But Scalia had the votes, and away he went.

In this context, let's take a look at the Doctrine of Original Intent in terms of the Court and its powers. Everybody takes for granted that the Supreme Court is a co-equal branch of government, actually a little bit more than co-equal. That is because it has the power to declare actions of the other two branches "unconstitutional," and thus make them null and void. Which is quite a bit of power. Surely that power is clearly written into the Constitution, is it not? Well, it's not. The balance of this column will show a) that indeed it's not and b) how, nevertheless, it came to be, functionally.

In 1996, under the pseudonym "Johnathan Westminster," I published a book entitled "The 15% Solution: A Political History of American Fascism, 2001-2022." In 2013 I published a 3rd version (not a third edition) of the book under the title "The 15% Solution: How the Republican Religious Right Took Control of the U.S., 1981-2022." (Actually, if Trump is reinstalled as President --- note I didn't use the word "win" --- that is precisely what is going to happen, more under Barr than under Trump [which will be the subject of another column shortly down the road].) That book, with an eye-catching cover if I do say so myself (although I did not design it), is advertised with every one of my OEN columns, towards the end of each.

In the plot of the book (which I wrote in 1994-95) control of the instruments of government get tighter and tighter for the Right. One venerable institution which could get in the way, even though the Right has a major majority, is the Supreme Court. So, a case comes up (it's school prayer case, actually, sponsored by the old Southern Racist-Rightist Jesse Helms, see the Postscript at the end of this column) that gives the Court the chance to do away with the powers of judicial review. A majority decision written by Chief Justice Steps (Scalia, It., get it?) reviews the cases that in the early 19th century formed what came to be known as "judicial review," and gave the Supreme Court that "over-rule/declare-Unconstitutional" power. Which, in fact, you may be surprised to learn is nowhere to be found in the Constitution's Article III (which defines the Supreme Court) or anywhere else for that matter. So, in my book Chief Justice "Steps" proceeded. And here, with introductory material, is his (fictional, do recall) opinion in the case, "Anderson v. Board of Education," from Chapter 5, of the book (as fictionally summarized in the Supreme Court Bulletin of the time, which is a real publication).


Summary of the Decision (Supreme Court Bulletin [fictional])

"Supreme Court Has No Constitutional Review Authority"

Anderson v. Board of Education, Cer­tiorari to United States Court of Ap­peals for the Third Circuit.

No. 101"11. Argued October 31, 2002 Decided May 13, 2003.

Petitioner, a parent acting on behalf of her minor child, brought a civil ac­tion against the Board of Education of the state of New Jersey seek­ing to pre­vent it from enforcing a law passed dur­ing the 2001 ses­sion of the State Legis­lature mandating voluntary prayer in the public schools of that state. Both the trial and appeals courts in the state of New Jersey found for the respondent. Petitioner appealed to the Su­preme Court. With­out arguing the merits, respon­dent filed a brief claiming that under 28 U.S.C., Chap. 81, para. 1260, gener­ally known as the "Helms Amend­ment [1]," the U.S. Su­preme Court did not have ju­risdiction in this case.

Held: Under the cited section of the U.S. Code, the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to review appeals of state school prayer statutes. Fur­ther, there can be found in the Constitution of the United States no grant of authority to the Supreme Court to review the action of any other branch of the Federal Government or any branch of any state government for its "constitutionality."

(a) Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution defines the authority of the Federal judicial power: "The judicial power shall extend to all cas­es, in law and equity, arising under this constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made under their authority; to all cases affect­ing ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls; to all cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction; to contro­versies to which the United States shall be a party; to controversies between two or more states."

(b) It is clear that the plain language of this article supports the hold­ing of the Court. Under the Doctrine of Original Intent, by which the Constitution should always be interpreted, it is clear that the Consti­tution means only what it says, not what any individual judge or group of judges collectively think that it ought to say or would like it to say. It thus be­comes clear that the series of decisions handed down by Chief Justice John Marshall and his colleagues in the first quarter of the 19th century which established the theory of Supreme Court "judicial re­view" for "constitu­tionality" were based on faulty legal rea­soning.

(c) In the first of these cases, Marbury v. Madison, the Court inval­i­dated an "Act of Congress giving the Court jurisdiction to hear origi­nal appli­cations for writs of mandamus, because in such cases the Con­stitu­tion limits the Su­preme Court to appellate jurisdiction" (Cox). While that opin­ion may be valid, nowhere does the Constitution give the Court the power to apply it with the force of law. Rather, as in Great Britain, the legisla­tive branch, through the will of the majority, is the only ap­propriate judge of the "constitutionality" of its own acts. In his written opinion, the Chief Justice stated that if "the courts lacked the power to give sting to constitu­tional safeguards . . . , the Legisla­tive and Execu­tive Branches might too often override the Constitution" (Cox). That may well be true. But if the Founding Fathers had wanted to give the Federal judiciary that "protec­tive" function, they would have clearly writ­ten it into the Constitu­tion. Chief Justice Marshall was reading into the Consti­tution words that he wanted to see but were not there [emphasis added].

(d) In Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, Justice Joseph Story expanded the Su­preme Court's review powers to include decisions made by the State courts (Cox). Like Chief Justice Marshall, Justice Story was reading into Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution what he wanted to see there. In Cohens v. Vir­ginia Chief Justice Marshall affirmed Justice Story's con­clu­sion in Martin, using the same faulty reasoning (Cox).

(e) Finally, in McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice Marshall not only reaffirmed the Court's review authority, unstated in the Constitu­tion, but found in it other "implied powers," giving the Congress au­thority to undertake ac­tions not otherwise specified by the Constitution (in this case renewing the charter of the United States Bank which it had originally established in 1791) (Cox).

(f) After extensive review of the opinions and reasoning in the deci­sions made in the aforementioned cases, careful review of the language of the Con­stitution itself, and a consideration of the available evidence on Original Intent, the Court was able to find no basis for the conclu­sions on "implied powers" that Chief Justice Marshall and his colleagues drew in those decisions referable to the authority of either the Supreme Court or the Congress. Thus, the Court held, the precedents estab­lished by those cases and all their successors down through the years were based on faulty rea­soning and a reading of the Consti­tution not in ac­cord with the Doctrine of Original Intent. Thus, those faulty prece­dents must be abandoned. Since the specifics of Marbury, Martin, Cohens, and McCulloch had long since become moot, the Court chose not to reverse those decisions. However, it did reverse the holdings made in those cases, that the Supreme Court had any power to review the actions of the Fed­eral Execu­tive and Legislative branches, or any State courts, for their "constitu­tionality."

11 F. 11th 111, Affirmed. Chief Justice Steps delivered the opinion of the Court; seven justices joining, one dissenting.

Author's Commentary (from the book; still fictional)

Anderson v. United States was the most signifi­cant decision handed down by the Supreme Court in the old United States since Marbury v. Madison, re­ferred to in the decision summary reproduced above. In that case, Chief Jus­tice John Marshall had established the power of the Su­preme Court to review actions of the two other branches of the Federal government. As cor­rectly noted by Chief Justice Steps that power is no­where clearly grant­ed to it by the Constitution itself. Nevertheless, Mar­shall said, if the Supreme Court found such actions to be unconsti­tutional, they were null and void. His reason­ing went as follows (Cox):

"The Constitution is either a superior paramount law, un­change­able by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legisla­tive acts, and, like other acts, is alter­able when the legis­lature shall please to alter it. If the former part of the alterna­tive be true, then a legislative act con­trary to the Constitution is not law; if the latter part be true, then written constitutions are ab­surd at­tempts, on the part of the people, to limit a power in its own nature illimitable."

Marshall, of course, held that the "former alternative" was true, its truth found in the fact of the Constitution itself. He then drew the de­fensi­ble con­clusion that the body given the power to adjudicate disputes arising under the Constitution, and Article 3 Section 2 surely did that, indeed had the power to review the actions of the other two govern­men­tal branches for their constitu­tionality. That authority was extended to the appellate review of state court decisions having constitutional impli­cations under the defen­sible conclusion that by ratifying the Con­stitution in the first place, the states had ceded to the Unit­ed States that appellate jurisdiction, which is clearly con­tained in Article 3 Section 2 (see the decision in Cohens).

Once the Court under Marshall's leadership had made those judgments, the full American power structure quickly came to agree with him. The Jeffer­sonians did make several modest attempts to undermine the inde­pendence and authority of the Supreme Court, but failed and ultimate­ly gave up. [Jefferson himself said that his opponents would "retreat into the judiciary as a stronghold, the tenure of which renders it difficult to dislodge them."] From that time onwards, American jurisprudence came to be firmly established in the legal structure that Chief Justice Marshall had constructed on the Constitution's base, as he interpreted it.

One very important principle set forth by Marshall, and subsequent­ly accepted by all parties to American government down to the Transi­tion Era, was that the Constitution was a document that meant more than it explicitly said, that was open to interpretation, and held within itself "im­plications." And by implication that meant the Constitution was a docu­ment that could grow and change with changing times and circumstances, that it was indeed designed to grow and change with changing times and circumstances.

During the Transition Era there came to be propounded what the Su­preme Court Bulletin's summary of Anderson refers to as the "Doc­trine of Original Intent." One of its early protagonists was one Edwin Meese, the most promi­nent of President Ronald Reagan's several Attor­neys General, later President of Right-Wing Reaction's Transition Era coordinating body, the highly secretive Council for National Policy (the highly secretive coordinating body for a wide range of Reactionary Republican and Christian Rightist organizations during the run-up to fascism). A for­mer local prosecutor with no back­ground in Con­sti­tu­tion­al law, a lawyer who once was supposed to have said that if the police arrested some­one that was evi­dence enough he or she was guilty, Meese held that if it wasn't in the Consti­tu­tion, in clear lan­guage, it didn't exist.

A more cerebral proponent of the Doctrine was one Robert Bork. He had two principal claims to fame. One was that as the third-ranking Jus­tice De­partment official in 1973, on the orders of President Richard M. Nixon he fired a supposedly independent prosecutor during the scan­dal that eventually came to be known by the name "Watergate" and that eventually led to Nixon's resignation as President. (Bork's two superi­ors at the time both resigned rather than carry out an order which in­deed was later found to be unlawful.)

The other was that he was the most celebrated failed Supreme Court nomi­nee in the history of the old U.S. And his nomination failed pre­cisely because he held to Constitutional theories that were complete­ly at odds with those held by almost everyone else at the time consid­ered to be an authority on the mat­ter. But his time eventually came. The Court did adopt the theory he es­poused so eloquently in so many legal papers and articles. Summarizing the theory, Bork held that (1993):

". . . principles not originally understood to be in the Constitu­tion [have no constitutional validity]. Where the Constitution is silent, [a Supreme Court] Justice has no [legislative review] authority. To act against legisla­tion without authority is to en­gage in civil disobedience from the bench and to perpetrate lim­ited coups d’etat that overthrow the American form of govern­ment."

By implication, of course, Bork was attacking Marshall, because what he found in the Constitution was certainly not originally under­stood to be there (assuming that "originally" in this context means "when the Consti­tu­tion was written"). And by so doing, Bork was in the front of a move­ment to deny 200 years of American jurisprudence. His, in essence, was the think­ing behind Anderson.

It is interesting that Bork's theory of Original Intent would appear to have much in common with the theory of "Biblical Innerantism" that was all the rage among the Religious Right during the Transition Era and pro­vided a major piece of the foundation of the thinking that lead to American Fascism. But that's another story, one we will get to later.

A spirited attack on the theory of Original Intent had been offered a few years before Bork wrote the article cited above by Judge Irving R. Kaufman, a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals judge (1987):

"I regard reliance on original intent to be a largely specious mode of in­ter­pretation. I often find it instructive to consult the Framers when I am called upon to interpret the Constitution, but it is the beginning of my inquiry, not the end. For not only is the quest for 'intent' fraught with obstacles of a practical na­ture notably that the Framers plainly never foresaw most of the problems that bedevil the courts today - it may also be more undemocratic than competing methods of construing the Consti­tu­tion.

"If the search for 'intent' sums up the constitutional enter­prise, then cur­rent generations are bound not merely by general lan­guage but by spe­cific conceptions frozen in time by men long dead. . . .

"The open “textured nature of most of the vital clauses of the Con­stitu­tion signifies that the drafters expected future genera­tions to adapt the language to modern circumstances, not con­duct judi­cial autopsies into the minds of the Framers. When the Founding Fathers talked about due pro­cess, equal protection and free­dom of speech and reli­gion, they were em­bracing gen­eral principles, not specific solutions [emphasis added]."

Kaufman here is of course defending the expansive approach to Con­stitu­tional interpretation that lead to the broadening of protections for indi­vidual rights that so enraged Rightwing Reactionaries in the latter half of the 20th century and lead eventually to Anderson.

It is ironic that in his younger days Kaufman was the judge who pre­sided over the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, accused of being atomic weapons spies, convicted, and eventually executed. Many peo­ple around the world thought the trial and the subsequent failed appeals pro­cess were possibly rigged and certainly major miscarriages of jus­tice. Both Ethel and Julius were politi­cal progressives and he was an active member of the Communist Party. Ethel was almost certainly not a spy, and if Julius was, he was apparently engaged only in stealing industrial, not atomic weapons, secrets.

The trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, it was revealed later, fea­tured unprecedented collusion between the Federal Bureau of Investi­gation, the Fed­eral Department of Justice, and the Courts, including both Judge Kaufman and the Supreme Court (Meeropol; Schneir and Schneir; Wexley). But it was a major feature of the so-called "McCar­thy Period" (1945-60). During that time of so-called "anti-Communist hysteria," indi­vidual rights for many left-wing Americans were harshly suppressed. Pun­ishment, most often in the form of political and judi­cial harassment and loss of employment, not imprisonment or death, was meted out simply for having, holding to, and expressing unpopular ideas, not for engaging in any even faintly illegal activity.

As an echo in a way of McCarthyism, in Anderson a group of Rightwing Reactionary justices overturned the whole U.S. legal tradi­tion from the time of the founding and organization of the Republic because they didn't like the outcomes that tradition had produced. With the Court out of the way, by its own hand no less, Rightwing Reaction had suc­ceed­ed in emasculating the powers of one of the three protectors of Ameri­can constitutional democracy, the Courts, the me­dia, and the Congress, on which it had set its sights during the Transi­tion Era (see Appendix III). Thus, Anderson significantly accelerated the development of fascism in the old U.S. But who ever said that the Court was not always truly a political institution (Rodell)?


And so ends the excerpt from my book.


Bork, R., "The Senate's Power Grab," New York Times, June 23, 1993.

Cox, A., The Court and the Constitution, Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987, pp. 58, 59, 63, 66, 75, 342, 360.

Kaufman, I.R., "No Way to Interpret the Constitution," New York Times, Jan. 2, 1987.

Meeropol, R., "Critique with Mort Meclosky," WUSB"FM, 90.1, Stony Brook, NY, October 30, 1995.

Rodell, F., Nine Men: A Political History of the Supreme Court from 1790 to 1955, New York: Random House, 1955.

Schneir, W. and Schneir, M., Invitation to an Inquest, New York: Dou­bleday, 1965.

Supreme Court Bulletin (Windham, NH), "Supreme Court Has No Constitutional Review Authority," Vol. 24, No. 8, June 2003, p. 3. [Note: this is a fictional reference.]

Wexley, J., The Judgment of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, New York: Cameron and Kahn, 1955.


Postscripts (back to real time):

1)  There was a real "Helms Amendment," offered in Congress a number of times from the early 1980s onwards by Senator Jesse Helms (RNC) (Cox) and his ideologi­cal succes­sors. Here is the real language from the real bill, that was really introduced to the Congress in 1991, as S. 77: "Sec. (a) This section may be cited as the 'Voluntary School Prayer Act'. (b) (1) Chap­ter 81 of title 28, Unit­ed States Code, is amended by adding at the end thereof the following new section: #1260. Appellate jurisdiction: limitations '(a) Notwith­stand­ing the provisions of sec­tions 1253, 1254, and 1257 of this chapter and in accor­dance with section 2 of Article III of the Constitution, the Supreme Court shall not have jurisdiction to review, by appeal, writ of certiorari, or otherwise, any case arising out of any State statute, ordi­nance, rule, regulation, practice, or any part thereof, or arising out of any act inter­preting, apply­ing, enforcing, or effecting any State statute (and etc.) which relates to voluntary prayer, Bible read­ing, or religious meetings in public schools or public build­ings . . .'"

Yes, Senator Helms really did write that language and really introduced that piece of legislation. It never did pass. But under Trumpite Theo-fascism, who knows?


2) * The Trumpubs. (C) say, as they dash to confirm as Trump's third nominee someone who will be if anything even further to the Right than the previous two, that in contradistinction with what they did to the Merrick Garland nomination, they are following a "non-political path." That is because, according to Moscow Mitch, this time the same party is in charge of both the Presidency and the Senate. (Somehow in Repub.-think that makes it "non-political." Huh?) Interestingly enough, by doing so they are clearly saying that when they deep-sixed Garland, nominated by Pres. Obama, they were in fact playing politics. But then again, consistency has never been a trait of the Republican Party, throughout its history.


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