Something about the Zeitgeist

Justice Scalia is often snarky. But he gets as good as he gives. Both tendencies were recently on display, after Justice Scalia apparently asserted that judges interpreting law in accordance with the “spirit of the age” were among the causes of Nazi barbarities, including the Holocaust ― a none too subtle dig at “living constitutionalism” and, perhaps, “judicial activism” of all sorts (whatever judicial activism is). The first reaction of some (myself included) was to think of Goodwin’s law. Others wax sarcastic about “peak Scalia.” Both snark and counter-snark are unjustified.

Start with the snark. Of course, when the spirit of the age is rotten, interpreting law in accordance with it will give foul results. But what about Justice Scalia preferred originalist approach? It will give better results if the law one interprets was written in a more enlightened age than the interpreter’s own; but if a law reflects the prejudice and ignorance of times past, then it is interpreting it in accordance with the spirit of those times that will give us bigoted jurisprudence. If one believes, with Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, then originalism is, on balance, an unattractive interpretive approach, although this does not exclude the possibility that it will sometimes yield just results, perhaps even more just results than the alternatives.

Yet the dismissive responses to Justice Scalia’s comments are also a bit too quick. It is worth noting that, as Josh Blackman points out, Justice Scalia is not the first to remark on the role of the Nazi judges’ interpretive approach in enabling the crimes of the regime they served. Cass Sunstein has made the same point:

In the Nazi period, German judges rejected formalism. They did not rely on the ordinary or original meaning of legal texts. On the contrary, they thought that statutes should be construed in accordance with the spirit of the age, defined by reference to the
Nazi regime. They thought that courts could carry out their task “only if they do not remain glued to the letter of the law, but rather penetrate its inner core in their interpretations and do their part to see that the aims of the lawmaker are realized.” (1; references omitted.)

Closer to home, Justice Lamer, as he then was, observed in R. v. Collins, [1987] 1 S.C.R. 265, that “[t]he reasonable person is usually the average person in the community, but only when that community’s current mood is reasonable” (emphasis mine). The point Justice Scalia was, I think, trying to make ― in however exaggerated a fashion ― is the same as that at which Justice Lamer was getting in this passage: the “spirit of the age,” the Zeitgeist, can be foul, and when it is, it is the judiciary’s duty to resist it as best it can, to prevent it from contaminating the law.

We can, of course, debate whether originalism is the best, or even an adequate way of doing so. We can say that perpetuating the iniquities of the past is no solution to the injustices of the present. But the idea is not absurd. It deserves discussion, not derision. It’s a shame that the spirit of the age, what with its addiction to soundbites and gotcha lines, appreciates the latter more than the former.

One thought on “Something about the Zeitgeist

  1. Pingback: R.I.P., Antonin Scalia | Double Aspect

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