Meese - Most Radical, Dangerous Attorney General in This Century? / Speech on Court Authority Draws Constitutional Uproar

By Stuart Taylor Jr., N. Y. T. N. S. | THE JOURNAL RECORD, November 29, 1986 | Go to article overview

Meese - Most Radical, Dangerous Attorney General in This Century? / Speech on Court Authority Draws Constitutional Uproar


Stuart Taylor Jr., N. Y. T. N. S., THE JOURNAL RECORD


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 this century.''

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 constitutionalists?

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 forevermore. …

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