Law & the Courts

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—October 12

1985 — In a speech at Georgetown law school, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. attempts to defend his judicial career of misinterpreting the Constitution to entrench liberal policy preferences. Brennan states that the “encounter with the constitutional text has been, in many senses, my life’s work,” and he speaks also of his 29 years of “wrestl[ing] with the Constitution,” but his speech illustrates how Brennan’s “encounter” with the Constitution would better be described as his mugging of it.

Brennan purports to disclaim the view that justices are “platonic guardians appointed to wield authority according to their personal moral predilections.” Rather, he claims:

When Justices interpret the Constitution they speak for their community, not for themselves alone. The act of interpretation must be undertaken with full consciousness that it is, in a very real sense, the community’s interpretation that is sought.

But the “community” Brennan imagines is neither the community of citizens who adopted the constitutional provision nor the contemporary community of citizens.

Indeed, Brennan shows how utterly illusory are the supposed “constraints” on his own approach to constitutional “interpretation” as he restates his position that “capital punishment is under all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.” That position is incompatible with the original meaning of those constitutional provisions. Further, as Brennan acknowledges, “it would seem [that] a majority of my fellow countrymen [do] not subscribe” to that interpretation. So much for Brennan’s phony claim of undertaking the “act of interpretation … with full consciousness that it is, in a very real sense, the community’s interpretation that is sought.”

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