In a decision widely perceived as a setback for President Barack Obama last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the president’s recess appointment of three members of the National Labor Relations Board. Though the ruling could mean Obama never makes another recess appointment, the court’s reasoning is a substantial victory for progressives. It decisively rebuffs the wrongheaded, rigid brand of originalism that argues only the framers’ original intent is relevant in interpreting the Constitution — which conservative justices have supported for decades.
The court’s judgment was unanimous, yet the two separate opinions issued highlight the deep ideological fissure dividing the four conservative justices from the five who joined the court’s opinion. A majority of justices embraced a pragmatic reading of the Constitution, taking account of the nation’s rich experience over the past 225 years. That approach is far removed from the conservative justices’ unrealistic insistence that the Constitution is frozen in the late 18th century.
This starkly divided faux-nanimous decision, as Dahlia Lithwick labeled it in Slate, is the latest public conflict between the radical justices on the right, led by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and the more moderate traditionalists on the high bench. Scalia, as his opinion reflects, is the senior justice promoting the twin doctrines that the Constitution’s meaning was not only fixed in stone in 1789 but is also based on the literal words in the text.
True, the framers’ intended meaning, as presented in the text, is an important starting point. But it is unrealistic and ultimately destructive to insist that courts must close their eyes to the nation’s intervening experience — including the evolution of the government’s political branches, astonishing changes in technology and the needs of modern society.
Fortunately, the founders themselves recognized that they were creating a document for the ages — and used broad, flexible terms that could incorporate unforeseen changes in society. A majority of the court on Thursday joined in an opinion consistent with the framers’ desire to create a lasting document.