Justice Thomas and the Constitution

“If [a law] is wrong, the ultimate precedent is the Constitution. It’s not what we say it is, it’s what it actually says. And I think we have to be humble enough to say ‘we were wrong.'”
Justice Clarence Thomas, February 2009

Thomas was responding to a question about the Court’s review of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Law.  His quote echoes former Justice Felix Frankfurter (who happened to have been the president of the ACLU before his court days).  Here is Frankfurter’s quote:

“The ultimate touchstone of constitutionality is the Constitution, and not what we have said about it.”  — Felix Frankfurter, Graves v. New York, 306 US 466 (1939)

Here is an audio clip of Justice Thomas’ remarks:

Here are a few more quotes to chew on:

“[I]n the lapse of [time], changes have taken place which in particular passages … obscure the sense of the original … [and] present wrong signification or false ideas. Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that which they had when introduced …. mistakes may be very injurious.” Noah Webster in Preface of the Webster Bible

“Though written constitutions may be violated in moments of passion or delusion, they furnish a text to which those who are watchful may again rally.”  — Thomas Jefferson

“On every question of construction (of the Constitution) let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.”  — Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Johnson, June 12, 1823, The Complete Jefferson, p322.

“The first and fundamental rule in the interpretation of all instruments is, to construe them according to the sense of the terms, and the intentions of the parties.” Justice Joseph Story, III Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States §400 (1883) at p383

Securing the Constitution

A Word from our Founders:

“To the security of a free constitution, [knowledge] contributes in various ways – by convincing those who are intrusted with the public administration that every valuable end of government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people, and by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burdens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness – cherishing the first, avoiding the last – and uniting a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws.” – George Washington, First State of the Union Address, January 8, 1790

– “When we consider that this Government is charged with the external and mutual relations only of these States; that the States themselves have principal care of our persons, our property, and our reputation, constituting the great field of human concerns, we may well doubt whether our organization is not too complicated, too expensive; whether offices and officers have not been multiplied unnecessarily and sometimes injuriously to the service they were meant to promote.” – Thomas Jefferson, First State of the Union Address, December 8, 1801