U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia joined the George Washington University community on Monday to celebrate Constitution Day. He addressed the audience in a speech about the enduring nature of the Constitution and what role the Supreme Court plays in interpreting its message today.
The event, held at Lisner Auditorium, was hosted by the Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource) and sponsored by the GW Law School. President Steven Knapp; Julie Silverbrook, B.A. ’09; and Gene Schaerr, a litigation partner at Winston & Strawn, provided opening remarks.
The Constitution, Justice Scalia said, is our source of freedom. It was created alongside a governance model structured to keep the branches of government balanced. Because power is parceled out between the legislature, the executive branch and the courts, state law is ultimately what guides individuals’ day-to-day lives, he explained.
“If you ask which court is of the greatest importance to an American citizen, it is not my court,” he said, adding that many crimes “are state crimes, and they’re defined differently in each state and they’re imposed different in each state.”
Still, judicial power should adhere to the intentions of the founding fathers, and it is crucial not to alter or depart from this understood role of the court. Those who write the law should not also interpret it, Justice Scalia said. He gave the example of federal district judges who issue injunctions and thereafter decide violations, and said this shows that there have been shifts in the equilibrium of judicial power.
Things could be worse, he said. Justice Scalia had just returned from a trip to Berlin, where he observed that the German Supreme Court exercises extreme powers over its legislature.
The U.S. Supreme Court today faces difficulties, including how to interpret human rights and moral issues—a problem that exists because judges have no particular expertise on human rights and there is little agreement on the core basics of moral topics. He explained lawyers are not “philosopher kings” and these questions are better left to the legislature.
Justice Scalia concluded by emphasizing that on the Constitution’s anniversary, the most important thing to remember was its “immutable” quality.
“The constitution establishes a rock—fixed principles to which the society is anchored. Once you say that rock is floating, that it means whatever we think it ought to mean… you’re not praising the Constitution, you’re praising current society,” he said. “If you’re celebrating that, you’re not celebrating the Constitution.”