Opinion | Amy Coney Barrett’s Belief in Originalism: Conservative or Radical?

To the Editor:

Amy Coney Barrett proclaims herself to be an originalist who thinks that when forced to choose between the Constitution’s original wording and precedent, a Supreme Court justice is obliged to go with the Constitution. In this she follows in the footsteps of Antonin Scalia, her mentor. Originalists present themselves as conservatives, but in truth they are radical reactionaries.

The founders wisely understood that no document they wrote could anticipate all changes in the future, and provided the amendment process to update the Constitution as needed. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “Let us provide in our constitution for its revision at stated periods.”

America today differs in ways the founders never envisioned. The right to vote was extended to freed male slaves and then women. The changes brought by the industrial and technological revolutions are far beyond even Ben Franklin’s imagination.

As final arbiters of how the Constitution applies to modern life, Supreme Court justices must have the intellectual flexibility to adopt the Jeffersonian view of it as a continually evolving document. A narrow-minded adherence to its 18th-century text should be disqualifying in itself for Judge Barrett or any 21st-century nominee, regardless of their views on other issues.

Eliot Brenowitz

To the Editor:

Judge Amy Coney Barrett no doubt has a brilliant legal mind and a fantastic academic record. But her embrace of “textualism,” or applying the law as written, is troubling for it suggests an almost mechanistic application of the law absent any human interpretation.

The Constitution, laws and regulations are composed of words. Words are of elastic definition. Judges will always interpret words and unavoidably be influenced by their personal thoughts and feelings in doing so.

The important skill for maintaining the court’s legitimacy is to do so in the most intellectually honest way that tacitly acknowledges bias and struggles to blunt it, not by operating under the cover of the doctrine of “textualism” that suggests that interpretation does not occur.

Roliff Purrington
The writer is a lawyer.

To the Editor:

Imagine going to your doctor and being told you can’t have this antibiotic or that treatment because it wasn’t mentioned in the medical texts in 1787. Yet that is essentially what people are saying when they insist that any new candidate for the Supreme Court must be an “originalist.”

In which other profession do we rely on texts written centuries ago, regardless of how groundbreaking or well intentioned they were at the time, as the definitive source?

Terms like originalist are often code for “the way things were.” But I for one certainly would not want to go back to 1787.

Ardesheer Talati
New York

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