Constitution Debate Renewed

January 31, 1986

Report Outline
Shift in Direction
Addressing the Issues
Back to the Future
Special Focus

Shift in Direction

Opposing Views on Applying Constitution

Americans sat-up and took notice last fall when Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. took opposing sides in the long-running debate over the proper way to apply the Constitution to modern issues. Meese led off last July 9, using an address to the American Bar Association (ABA) to tell the Supreme Court that it was on the wrong constitutional track. Describing the decisions of the just-ended court term as a “jurisprudence of idiosyncrasy,” Meese urged the court to adopt one of “original intention.”

In October, Brennan, the senior sitting justice, responded, defending the modern court's approach of interpreting the Constitution in light of contemporary realities. “We current justices read the Constitution in the only way we can: as 20th-century Americans,” Brennan declared.

Elaborating on his theme, Meese told the ABA that many of the court's recent rulings seemed to be “more policy choices than articulations of constitutional principle…reveal[ing] a greater allegiance to what the court thinks constitutes sound public policy than a deference to what the Constitution—its text and intention—may demand.” It is the Reagan administration's belief, he continued, “that only ‘the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation,’ and only the sense in which laws were drafted and passed provide a solid foundation for adjudication. Any other standard suffers the defect of pouring new meaning into old words, thus creating new powers and new rights totally at odds with the logic of our Constitution and its commitment to the rule of law.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Constitution and Separation of Powers
Sep. 07, 2012  Re-examining the Constitution
Jan. 29, 1988  Treaty Ratification
Mar. 27, 1987  Bicentennial of the Constitution
Jan. 31, 1986  Constitution Debate Renewed
Mar. 16, 1979  Calls for Constitutional Conventions
Jul. 04, 1976  Appraising the American Revolution
Sep. 12, 1973  Separation of Powers
Jul. 12, 1972  Treaty Ratification
Apr. 19, 1967  Foreign Policy Making and the Congress
Mar. 05, 1947  Contempt of Congress
May 10, 1945  The Tariff Power
Jul. 01, 1943  Executive Agreements
Jun. 01, 1943  Advice and Consent of the Senate
May 24, 1943  Modernization of Congress
Jan. 18, 1943  The Treaty Power
Aug. 24, 1942  Congress and the Conduct of War
May 09, 1940  Congressional Powers of Inquiry
Nov. 09, 1939  Participation by Congress in Control of Foreign Policy
Apr. 21, 1937  Revision of the Constitution
Feb. 24, 1936  Advance Opinions on Constitutional Questions
Oct. 04, 1935  Federal Powers Under the Commerce Clause
Jun. 19, 1935  The President, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court
Sep. 10, 1928  The Senate and the Multilateral Treaty
Dec. 16, 1926  The Senate's Power of Investigation
Oct. 03, 1924  Pending Proposals to Amend the Constitution
Abortion, Contraception and Reproductive Issues
U.S. Constitution