Law school hosts debate on constitutional originalism

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September 16, 2010

10:57 PM

The Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary celebrated Constitution Day Monday by hosting a debate on whether or not the United States should follow the U.S. Constitution as it was written.

The Institute of Bill of Rights Law hosted a discussion between Michael Klarman of Harvard Law School and College law professor Alan Meese on constitutional originalism — the theory that members of the judicial branch of the U.S. government should follow the rules laid out in the Constitution as they are, without much deviation.

The debate was moderated by law school Dean Davison M. Douglas. Douglas used comedy to introduce the two debaters, touting “Michael ‘The Thumper’ Klarman” and “Alan ‘The Scrambler’ Meese.”

Each debater had 25 minutes to prove his point, with Meese supporting constitutional originalism and Klarman opposing it, before a question-and-answer segment took place.

Meese opened the debate by saying that the reason Americans follow the word of the Constitution is because it is supported by the people, and that any governing document is invalid without popular support. Meese also noted that without the Constitution as it was written, our society would not know how to operate.

“The Constitution is a work of the people,” he said. “It was designed to outlast the ratifiers. The Constituition established fixed principles for the future, and if we choose to follow the ‘dead hand of the past’ theory, then why respect any of [the ratifiers’] decisions at all?”

Klarman listed reasons as to why the Constitution should not be interpreted exactly as it was written.

Klarman conceded that originalism had its virtues, but added that he felt its numerous vices outweigh its virtues. Klarman argued that although the Constitution links the United States together as a nation of people, it was written during a time in which many groups were excluded, and that the world today is very different from what it was when the Constitution was ratified.

“There are some key differences between then and now — ideological, circumstantial and factual assumptions,” he said. “The world has changed immensely, and some decisions require certain insight from experience that the ratifiers just did not have.”

This debate has occurred two times previously on Constitution Day, a federal holiday celebrating the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, which the College is required to celebrate as instructed by a 2004 spending bill by former U.S. Senator Robert Byrd.

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