WASHINGTON - Jefferson said it. Jackson said it.
So did Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But when Attorney General Edwin Meese 3d said in a speech last
month that officials and citizens need not give unswerving deference
to the Supreme Court's interpretations of the Constitution, alarm
bells went off among civil libertarians.
``An invitation to lawlessness'' was what Ira Glasser, executive
director of the American Civil Liberties Union, branded the speech.
He called Meese ``The most radical and dangerous attorney general in
Glasser was far from alone.
Why such a commotion about what was, in the view of several
scholars of diverse political persuasions, a rather unremarkable
disquisition on somewhat abstruse questions long debated by
Part of the answer is that when the attorney general,
particularly one who has already criticized the court more boldly
than any predecessor in more than 40 years, speaks out on the
court's authority, speculation runs rampant among friends and foes
alike about what kind of message he really means to send.
What was the hidden agenda? Was there one? Was he simply
restating familiar truisms? Or hinting at something bigger? Why
did he start down this or that line of analysis without saying how
far he would carry it? What did he mean by assailing the reasoning
of a 1958 decision aimed at quelling massive resistance by Southern
whites to school desegregation?
The answers are not self-evident. And so the speculation
proliferates, with Meese's liberal critics quick to assume, and his
aides quick to deny, that he is flirting with radical assaults on
settled legal principles.
Meese's speeches about the court and the Constitution have been
especially provocative of such speculation, because he often makes
potentially far-reaching but fundamentally ambiguous statements
about issues of great profundity and complexity without spelling out
what he means.
Narrowly interpreted, most of these statements would hardly be
controversial. Expansively read, they can be seen as rallying cries
for fundamental change.
Meese's speech at Tulane University was a case in point. He
plunged into a debate about the court's role in enforcing the
Constitution that goes back to 1803, when the court asserted the
authority to strike down an Act of Congress as unconstitutitional.
Meese endorsed this doctrine of judicial review, but said the
justices, and liberals who had savaged conservative critics of the
court as though it was sacrosanct, had wrongly equated the court and
its rulings with the Constitution itself.
While a Supreme Court ruling ``binds the parties in the case and
also the executive branch for whatever enforcement is necessary,''
he said, it does not ``establish a `supreme law of the land' that is
binding on all persons and parts of government, henceforth and