Jennifer Senior: Had you already arrived at originalism as a philosophy?
Justice Antonin Scalia: I don’t know when I came to that view. I’ve always had it, as far as I know. Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change. I mean, the notion that the Constitution should simply, by decree of the Court, mean something that it didn’t mean when the people voted for it—frankly, you should ask the other side the question! How did they ever get there?
He can’t be serious, right? “Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change.”
This passage from an interview with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia leaves me bewildered. Someone making some of the most critical decisions in the world believes that you crank open the top of a word — or, to give him a bit of a break, a phrase — peer in, and thereby discover its meaning. Whether the prybar used is a dictionary, a history book, or judicial thumbs, the point remains: according to Scalia, meaning inheres in words. And — which must be taken as an injunction rather than a fact, the latter being demonstrably false — that meaning does not change over time.
It’s possible, I suppose, that he’s messing with the interviewer. His comments right afterwards about being a contrarian suggest that he’s having fun and letting fly a small reason petard.
I know that I bang on about this sort of approach to the interpretation of legal texts. I suspect that it’s a deficiency in me that I cannot imagine life as a literalist. Back when I had a desk I always promised myself I’d have a sign made for the top of it that said, “Everything Means Something Else.” Call it irony, or ambiguity, or metaphor, or “spirit” (as in that which doesn’t “kill” but “giveth life”), it’s simply a core element of civilization for me, one that connects language to life and makes both possible, or at least, more bearable. I guess that makes me Humpty and Scalia Alice. We’re certainly on opposite sides of the looking glass.