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Originalism: A Primer On Scalia's Constitutional Philosophy

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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has defined "originalism" this way:

"The Constitution that I interpret and apply is not living but dead, or as I prefer to call it, enduring. It means today not what current society, much less the court, thinks it ought to mean, but what it meant when it was adopted."

In remembrances of the justice, who was found dead Saturday at the age of 79, the term has been used often — but it's more than just a simple word. And its meaning goes far deeper than a simple definition.

To learn more about this principle, NPR's Michel Martin spoke with legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg about originalism — its underpinnings, and Scalia's extensive influence.

Interview Highlights

On whether he was the first to favor originalism

The point of view was not new to him. Robert Bork espoused that point of view to some extent, as have others. But he was its main proponent on the Supreme Court. And while that point of view might at one point have been considered something of a fringe viewpoint, he came on to the court in the middle of the 1980s, just as the conservative Federalist Society was taking hold in academic institutions. So there was this two-tiered motor: him on the Supreme Court; the Federalist Society.

Other judges who'd been nominated and would be nominated by President Reagan and the two President Bushes on the lower courts ... espoused this view of constitutional interpretation that really had not been a part of our conversation in the 20th century.

On what informed this perspective

The idea that it would be an enduring document and that if there were going to be major changes in the way policies were implemented that they would have to be done through the democratic process. And that you don't want to give judges too much power to make those kinds of decisions.

The flip side of that is a static interpretation of the law that doesn't move with the times, doesn't move with the society. And that's the struggle that you see on the Supreme Court today. In some ways between some of the conservatives on the court and other members of the court.

On Scalia's support for originalism

He was its most fierce proponent I guess I would say, but that didn't mean that he prevailed. Not everybody on the court agreed with him, including many of the conservatives on some issues. And so while he was its principal proponent and theoretician, he didn't win a great deal of the time because he was not a consensus-builder. Other people were more willing to compromise than he was. He would have called that "faux-conservatism."

So there was a struggle not just with the moderate liberal wing of the court but with some conservatives on the court from time to time as well.

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