The entire speech is worth reading for anyone interested in a high-level lesson in constitutional analysis given in clear, straightforward prose. I will try here to touch on a few of its highlights.
First, Souter points out that many of the Constitution’ guarantees are phrased in such open-ended language that they necessarily will require a large degree of interpretive work to determine their application to new facts in new times: ‘The Constitution has a good share of deliberately open-ended guarantees, like rights to due process of law, equal protection of the law, and freedom from unreasonable searches.” He contrasts these provisions to provisions that provide bright lines that make decision easy — provisions such as the requirement that Senators be 30 years old.
But, as he makes clear, pointing out that determining, for example, whether a given governmental action satisfies the requirement of “due process” “hardly scratches the surface” of constitutional judging. First, provisions may be clear and yet any consideration of their real implications makes obvious that they cannot be applied literally. Second, as I’ve pointed out before (in discussing why “empathy” plays a far greater part in judging than implied those who would suggest empathy is merely soft-heartedness), determining which facts are more or less significant makes all the difference in the world of a judge:
The reasons that constitutional judging is not a mere combination of fair reading and simple facts extend way beyond the recognition that constitutions have to have a lot of general language in order to be useful over long stretches of time. Another reason is that the Constitution contains values that may well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony. Yet another reason is that the facts that determine whether a constitutional provision applies may be very different from facts like a person’s age or the amount of the grocery bill; constitutional facts may require judges to understand the meaning that the facts may bear before the judges can figure out what to make of them.To make these points, Souter uses two examples. The first is the Pentagon Papers case, in which the “New York Times and the Washington Post had each obtained copies of classified documents prepared and compiled by government officials responsible for conducting the Vietnam War. The newspapers intended to publish some of those documents, and the government sought a court order forbidding the publication.” While the Court ruled that the newspapers had the right under the First Amendment to publish the Pentagon Papers, it did not do so on the simple basis that the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” (emphasis added.) Instead, the Court adopted the interpretation advanced by Irwin Griswold, who responded to the suggestion by Justice Black that the case was a simple one of applying the rule that “no law” means “no law” with the argument that it was not so simple:
Now Mr. Justice, your construction of that is well-known, and I certainly respect it. You say that no law means no law, and that should be obvious. I can only say, Mr. Justice, that to me it is equally obvious that “no law” does not mean “no law,” and I would seek to persuade the Court that that is true.Thus, the [C]ourt’s majority decided only that the government had not met a high burden of showing facts that could justify a prior restraint, and particular members of the court spoke of examples that might have turned the case around, to go the other way. Threatened publication of something like the D-Day invasion plans could have been enjoined; Justice Brennan mentioned a publication that would risk a nuclear holocaust in peacetime.”
How can it be that “no law” does not mean “no law”? Isn’t that kind of “interpretation” exactly the kind of thing that gives judges a bad name? As Souter makes clear, it is nothing of the sort; it’s the reason we consider judging an activity requiring the utmost in wisdom, intelligence, and experience. The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press cannot possibly be absolute because the Constitution provides for a plethora of other individual rights and governmental obligations, no one of which is entirely consistent with the other. As the examples above illustrate, we also have to account for the constitutional authority of the President to provide for national security . As anyone who has considered matters of individual liberty at any depth know, individual liberty is often necessarily at odds with equality. Yet the Constitution guarantees both individual liberty and equality. As Souter explains, an interpretation based on merely believing “no law” in the First Amendment means “no law”
fails because the Constitution has to be read as a whole, and when it is, other values crop up in potential conflict with an unfettered right to publish, the value of security for the nation and the value of the president’s authority in matters foreign and military. The explicit terms of the Constitution, in other words, can create a conflict of approved values, and the explicit terms of the Constitution do not resolve that conflict when it arises. The guarantee of the right to publish is unconditional in its terms, and in its terms the power of the government to govern is plenary. A choice may have to be made, not because language is vague but because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well. These paired desires of ours can clash, and when they do a court is forced to choose between them, between one constitutional good and another one. The court has to decide which of our approved desires has the better claim, right here, right now, and a court has to do more than read fairly when it makes this kind of choice. And choices like the ones that the justices envisioned in the Papers case make up much of what we call law.Souter’s second example is The Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Court unanimously held that racial segregation in public schools imposed violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law. As Souter explains, “Brown ended the era of separate-but-equal, whose paradigm was the decision in 1896 of the case called Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court had held it was no violation of the equal protection guarantee to require black people to ride in a separate railroad car that was physically equal to the car for whites.”
Souter, significantly, thinks that best explanation for the differences in the results between Plessy and Brown is an explanation that is forbidden to those who would believe the Constitution means now what it did in 1789 and must always mean what it meant in 1789: “the difference between the cases is the dates they were decided.”
How can this be so? It is because the significance of facts differ from judge to judge, and, of course, the significance of facts differs over time. What seemed equal treatment of the races in 1896 — when the contrast was to the recent legality of slavery — no longer seemed equal in 1954, and it would be folly to suggest otherwise:
[T]he generation in power in 1954 looked at enforced separation without the revolting background of slavery to make it look unexceptional by contrast. As a consequence, the judges of 1954 found a meaning in segregating the races by law that the majority of their predecessors in 1896 did not see. That meaning is not captured by descriptions of physically identical schools or physically identical railroad cars. The meaning of facts arises elsewhere, and its judicial perception turns on the experience of the judges, and on their ability to think from a point of view different from their own. Meaning comes from the capacity to see what is not in some simple, objective sense there on the printed page. And when the judges in 1954 read the record of enforced segregation it carried only one possible meaning: It expressed a judgment of inherent inferiority on the part of the minority race. The judges who understood the meaning that was apparent in 1954 would have violated their oaths to uphold the Constitution if they had not held the segregation mandate unconstitutional.As Souter so succinctly puts the matter: “So much for the assumption that facts just lie there waiting for an objective judge to view them.” And so much for the contention by John Roberts that judging is merely a matter of “calling balls and strikes.” As Souter says, such a simplistic view of what judges do “fails to account for what the Constitution actually says, and it fails just as badly to understand what judges have no choice but to do.” “Judges have to choose between the good things that the Constitution approves, and when they do, they have to choose, not on the basis of measurement, but of meaning.”
Most fundamentally, Souter sees the contrast between his view of the Constitution and the view of those who would have it that judging his way means that he is making it up along the way to evade the plain language of the law as the contrast between those who would impose certainty in a world where there is no certainty. Most importantly, Souter believes that, in the face of uncertainty, we fulfill our national aspirations best by applying reason and judgment to the application of the principles that our nation was established to uphold:
Where I suspect [I] differ most fundamentally[from the those who would apply a simple, literal meaning to constitutional language] is in my belief that in an indeterminate world I cannot control, it is still possible to live fully in the trust that a way will be found leading through the uncertain future. And to me, the future of the Constitution as the Framers wrote it can be staked only upon that same trust. If we cannot share every intellectual assumption that formed the minds of those who framed the charter, we can still address the constitutional uncertainties the way they must have envisioned, by relying on reason, by respecting all the words the Framers wrote, by facing facts, and by seeking to understand their meaning for living people.
That is how a judge lives in a state of trust, and I know of no other way to make good on the aspirations that tell us who we are, and who we mean to be, as the people of the United States.