WHEN EDWIN MEESE III, Ronald Reagan's friend and sometime attorney general, summoned the nation's judges to "a jurisprudence of original intent" one day in 1986, he detonated a controversy that echoed along the Potomac for the better part of a decade.
The echoes rang a bit hollow, however, insofar as they implied that the "original intent" of the framers of the Constitution is historically self-evident or easily pried from dusty documents. The distinguished constitutional scholar Leonard Levy, who holds strong views in such matters and rarely understates them, retorted that any originalist theory of constitutional construction is a "will-o'-the- wisp." Levy takes pleasure in showing that not even the mythic heroes of the American legal past have honored any such theory of constitutional construction, even in those instances when it might be ascertained. He suggests, for instance, that the most revered jurist in our history, Chief Justice John Marshall, was among the worst offenders against "original intent," deliberately violating the framers' purposes on several critical occasions.