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Jan Resseger: An “Originalist” Judge Cannot Understand Education

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Jan Resseger writes here about the misfit between an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution and the field of education, which has evolved very far from its condition in the 1770s. It is likely that an originalist, as Judge Amy Coney Barrett claims to be, would have nothing to say about contemporary issues in education, since there were no public schools, no Catholic schools, no organized system of education at all in the time that the Constitution was written.

Resseger writes:

For a couple of weeks now, since the publication of Derek Black’s history of the constitutional basis for American public education, this blog has been reflecting on the meaning of constitutional principles in our nation’s founding documents and the 50 state constitutions for defining the role and meaning of our nation’s system of public schools.  (See herehere, and here.)

But this week, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who defines herself as a constitutional originalist, went through hours of Senate confirmation hearings leading to a Senate vote on her confirmation in the next week or two as President Trump’s latest appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. All week we have been considering what it means for our society today when members of the U.S. Supreme Court define themselves as originalists who are bound to interpret the constitutionality of today’s laws according to the precise wording of the U.S. Constitution of 1787.

The other day when Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, trained in the law and formerly a federal prosecutor, was asked whether she is an originalist, Mayor Lightfood replied: “You ask a gay, black woman if she is an originalist? No, ma’am, I am not. The Constitution didn’t consider me a person… because I’m a woman, because I’m black, because I’m gay.  I am not an originalist. I believe in the Constitution. I believe that it is a document that the founders intended to evolve and what they did was set the framework for how our country was going to be different from any other. But originalists say that, ‘Let’s go back to 1776 and whatever was there in the original language, that’s it.’ That language excluded, now, over 50 percent of the country. So, no I’m not an originalist.”

Like Mayor Lightfoot, many people today worry about originalist legal interpretation.  In Linguistics 101, students learn that language changes and evolves over time as particular words become archaic, fall out of common usage, or evolve to mean something different. Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive. We cannot know precisely what the founders intended, but we can be sure that the words they used in 1787 may connote something much broader or narrower today.

Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black’s new book is, in essence, the history of how the meaning of the guarantee of public education as a right for every child has changed and become more inclusive in the over two hundred years since our nation’s founding. Some people say that because the Constitution itself does not mention public education, public education is not a fundamental right, but Black disagrees because public education is so carefully planned in the Northwest Ordinance, passed as a sort of companion document in the same year as the Constitution.  As Black traces the history of our understanding of the right to public education, it’s clear that Derek Black is certainly not an originalist.  His book is the story of how our history—the civil war, the development of the constitutional principles of the 50 states, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement—has informed and further defined the meaning of the founding principles: “The foregoing principles—the right to an adequate and equal education, making education the state’s absolute and foremost duty, requiring states to exert the necessary effort (financial or otherwise) to provide quality educational access, placing education above normal politics, and expecting courts to serve as a check—are all in the service of something larger: the original idea that education is the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  Education is the means by which citizens preserve their other rights. Education gives citizens the tools they need to hold their political leaders accountable…  Democracy simply does not work well without educated citizens.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)  Black reminds us, however: “The founders articulated educational goals not with any certainty that they would spring into reality simply by writing them down, but in the hope that we might one day live into them.” (Schoolhouse Burning, p 71)

Originalist” legal interpretation doesn’t pay much heed to how we have lived into the goals and principles declared all those generations ago. How has the meaning of the constitutional protection of equal education evolved over the history of our country?

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