1985 July 9

Attorney General Ed Meese Launches “Original Intent” Crusade


Attorney General Edwin Meese gave a speech to the American Bar Association on this day, arguing that the principle of Original Intent should be the basis for Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution. The speech launched a movement among conservative legal scholars in support of the concept, which holds that courts should base their decisions on the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. The idea reflected the argument of conservatives that judges, and particularly Supreme Court Justices, had substituted their personal and political views rather than the intent of the framers in deciding cases. In this regard, Original Intent was an attack on decades of Court decisions expanding civil liberties protections.

The original intent argument, for example, would presumably hold that the “wall of separation” between church and state, the “exclusionary rule” in criminal procedure,” and the right to privacy were judicially-created and never intended by the framers of the Constitution.

Other legal scholars (see especially Leonard Levy, below) have argued in rebuttal that it is impossible to know what the intent of the framers was (and who exactly constitute “the framers”), and that the constitutional jurisprudence must necessarily change to respond to modern conditions unforeseen by the framers as well as evolving standards of justice. Some people confuse Original Intent with “textualism,” which holds that the meaning of the Constitution lies not in what its framers intended but what the literal text of the document says.

Read the speech he gave on this day: http://www.justice.gov/ag/aghistory/meese/1985/07-09-1985.pdf

Learn About Original Intent: Leonard W. Levy, Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution (1988)

Read his memoirs: Edwin Meese, With Reagan: The Inside Story (1992)

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