Change Text Size
Email Columns Print page
Columns: The Online newspaper for the University of Georgia community
Magnify John Paul Stevens Georgia Law Review conference 2013 h.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the keynote address at the Georgia Law Review conference Nov. 6. Photo by Paul Efland

Retired US Supreme Court justice discusses history, originalism

Matt Chambers

Reporter

Recent and archived articles by Matt Chambers

News Service
News Service
Work: 706-583-0913
Email:
By Matt Chambers |
November 18, 2013
Share    

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens made an argument against relying too much on history to interpret laws as he spoke to an audience in the Chapel.

Stevens, the keynote speaker for the Nov. 6 "The Press and the Constitution 50 Years after New York Times v. Sullivan" conference, said originalism—the political theory that the original intent or meaning of the U.S. Constitution or laws should be used in judicial interpretations—relies heavily on history that may not be entirely accurate.

Retired US Supreme Court justice discusses history, originalism

"History is, at best, an inexact field of study," he said. "Even the most qualified historians may interpret events differently."

As an example, Stevens shared a memory of a 1939 childhood trip to Florida that included a stop in Atlanta. While in the state's capital, Stevens and his family went to see the movie Gone With the Wind.
"As I remember, when ‘Dixie' was played, the audience was deeply moved, and I was afraid to whisper lest my accent reveal I was from the North," he quipped.

Stevens went on to explain he later found out his memory of the scene was not correct; it never actually happened in the movie.

If events can be recalled incorrectly or disputed, the intentions of legislators also cannot be relied upon, said Stevens, who was appointed to the high court in 1975 by President Gerald Ford.

Stevens argued that the original legislator's "reason for a new rule" may not always work when justices have to make rulings in modern times. Stevens said that Brown v. Board of Education—a 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found racial segregation a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment—is one of the best cases against originalism.

"A study of the original intent of the 14th Amendment wouldn't have shown an argument for desegregation," Stevens said.

Retired US Supreme Court justice discusses history, originalism

Steven did say that he feels a study of what past leaders said can help inform justices, but it should not weigh on their judgment.

"I never object to the use of history," he said. "I think it is not the correct standard to make a decision case after case. I certainly do not criticize anyone for studying the history of an issue to learn more about it."

Stevens also said he didn't feel the current U.S. Supreme Court is "dysfunctional" after one audience member asked his thoughts on the bench today.

"It has made a number of decisions I have thought were wrong, but the system is functioning," he said.

Stevens also told an audience member he didn't view a proposal to limit the terms of Supreme Court justices to 18 years as "a frivolous suggestion," but that longer terms are more preferable.

"I do think that in the long run, allowing judges to serve as long as they are capable is in the country's best interest," said Stevens, who retired from the court in 2010 at age 90.

Retired US Supreme Court justice discusses history, originalism

"Also, the other judges are able to let one another know when it's time to leave," he added jokingly.

View as single page

More from this issue

  • November 18, 2013

    New York Philharmonic’s principal trumpet to join music school

    Philip Smith, currently the principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic, soon will be moving south to join the faculty of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music. Smith will be named the William F. and Pamela P. Prokasy Professor in the Arts within the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, pending approval by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    Police investigate ID thefts related to Facebook posts

    UGA police are conducting identity theft investigations related to hateful speech posted on the social networking sites of several UGA student, staff and faculty groups. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    Public Health prof tackles indoor air pollution in developing countries

    Traveling from Guatemala, Peru and Chile to India, Luke Naeher has spent his career studying an air pollution source that is one of the world's biggest but least well-known killers-smoke from indoor cookstoves. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    Participants selected for Vivian H. Fisher Leadership Academy

    The Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach has selected participants for the 2013-14 Vivian H. Fisher PSO Leadership Academy, an eight-month leadership curriculum structured for high-level performers. The J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development will facilitate the academy, which includes 17 faculty and staff from public service and outreach units, Extension and academic units. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    EITS to focus on stronger network connections, improved security

    Providing a stronger network connection and continuing to bolster Web security remain top technological priorities on campus, said Tim Chester, the vice president for information technology. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    Team receives $4.98M grant to improve sorghum production

    An international team led by UGA's Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory will work toward sustainable intensification of sorghum production through a $4.98 million grant recently funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    ‘Shaping tomorrow’s leaders’

    Stefanie A. Lindquist, the new dean of the School of Public and International Affairs, said she is proud to work for a school with such a distinguished faculty, impressive students and accomplished alumni. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    Number of minority teachers affects African-American teen pregnancy rates

    Thirty-four percent of girls nationwide get pregnant at least once before age 20, according to a study for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. In Georgia, 86 out of every 1,000 African-American girls age 15-19 and 58 of 1,000 white teens become pregnant. According to new research from the School of Public and International Affairs, increasing the number of minority teachers can improve these health outcomes. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    Healthy eating: Freshmen learn about food choices

    Freshmen India Milling and Holly Ebbets hunched over a list of menu items from Chili's restaurant, searching for the dishes with the most calories.  Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    A different beat

    There aren't many college classes in which the majority of students voluntarily stay after class is dismissed to continue a class discussion. Continue

  • November 18, 2013

    Thinc. programs, events aim to boost entrepreneurial spirit at UGA

    Thinc., a celebration of entrepreneurial spirit at UGA, will again host a variety of new and ongoing programs and events to help UGA students, faculty and staff see the world of opportunities, both local and global, and to start something in response. This celebration and the yearlong activities will culminate in the Thinc. Entrepreneurial Week, April 14-18. Continue

FOR MORE ONLINE
UGA Twitter Facebook RSS
Columns is produced by the University of Georgia Public Affairs Division | Feedback