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Rosen on Brandeis in TNR

Posted in Kagan Nomination, Law and Politics by Mike Sacks on June 29, 2010

Jeffrey Rosen has a very long, but very good, essay/review in The New Republic of Melvin Urofsky’s Brandeis biography.  Entitled “Why Brandeis Matters,” the piece begins with an examination of Brandeis’s crusade against corporate and governmental bigness as applied to the Roberts Court’s reflection of today’s current economic and political climate and ends with an account of his Zionism as symbolic of his devotion to cultural pluralism.

In between these sections, Rosen provides a timely passage for the Kagan hearings:

In addition to combining judicial restraint with passionate anti-corporate progressivism, Brandeis’s Liggett dissent exemplified a third aspect of his judicial philosophy: his commitment to interpreting the ideals of the Founders in light of the entire range of constitutional history. In this sense, Brandeis provides an inspiring model for citizens today who are searching for an alternative to the rigid originalism championed by some Roberts Court conservatives, and also for an alternative to the untethered “living constitutionalism” of some Warren Court liberals. Brandeis combines elements of originalism and living constitutionalism into an approach that might be called living originalism.

Brandeis believed that the values of the Founders were immutable, but had to be translated into a very different world in light of dramatic changes in society, technology, and economics. He believed in constitutional change—in a talk called “The Living Law,” he charged that the law had “not kept pace with the rapid development of our political, economic, and social ideals” and said “the challenge of legal justice [was] to conform to our contemporary conceptions of social justice.” But Brandeis insisted that efforts to render constitutional values in a contemporary vocabulary always had to be rooted in the text and in the broad unchanging ideals of the Framers. By interpreting the values of the Framers in light of progressive movements across the range of American history, Brandeis believed they could be preserved in a way that served the needs of citizens in the here and now—which is, after all, what the Constitution was written to do.

This “living originalism”–not to be confused with the “restrained activism” I discussed in the post below–was on display today as Solicitor General Kagan sought to bust the originalist/activist binary.

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