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Eighth Annual American Constitution Society National Convention Gala Dinner Keynote Address

Thursday, June 17, 2010
(As Prepared For Delivery)

Thank you, Judy, for that introduction, and for your work on behalf of working Americans.

Thank you to Caroline Fredrickson for your leadership and for inviting me to speak here tonight.

Thank you all for being here tonight, and for the good work you do to defend the Constitution and the American values it represents.

It is an honor to address this convention.

Speakers at past ACS gatherings have included Supreme Court Justices, Attorneys General, other cabinet secretaries, federal judges, and distinguished legal scholars.

So tonight I guess we’ll finally get an answer to the question: “What do Stephen Breyer, Laurence Tribe, and Al Franken have in common?”

Other than: “They were all in the front row when the Dead played the Garden back in ’71.”

Tonight, we celebrate the rise of a new generation of progressive legal scholars and jurists.

Look to your left. Look to your right.

Odds are, at least one of the three of you will someday be filibustered by Senate Republicans.

Speaking of which, I’d like to give a special shout-out to all the filibustered nominees we have here with us tonight.

The Republican obstruction that is standing between you and the work you’ve agreed to do for your country is unacceptable.  And we will continue to fight it.

In particular, I want to recognize Dawn Johnsen, who should be the head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice.  What Republicans have done to keep you from doing that important job is flat out wrong.

And I want to recognize Goodwin Liu, who should be sitting on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals right now, and who deserves an up-or-down vote.

When I joined the Senate, I was thrown right into the fire as a member of the Judiciary Committee, where, by the way, I enthusiastically voted for Goodwin.

On my fifth day in office, I found myself taking part in the confirmation hearings for now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Just like I am tonight, I was one of the few non-lawyers in the room, but I didn’t mind.

You see, I did some research, and it turns out that most Minnesotans aren’t lawyers, either.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t directly affected every day by what happens on the Supreme Court, and in our legal system.

I don’t think you need to be a lawyer to recognize that the Roberts Court has, consistently and intentionally, protected and promoted the interests of the powerful over those of individual Americans.

And you certainly don’t need to be a lawyer to understand what that means for the working people who are losing their rights, one 5-4 decision at a time.

Tonight, I’d like to talk about how we got to this sad moment in American legal history — because it didn’t happen by accident.

Conservative activists — led by the Federalist Society — have waged a remarkably successful battle to re-shape our legal discourse, and thus our legal system.

And they’re not done yet.

I should acknowledge up front that this story is kind of a downer.

But there’s good news: the ending has not yet been written.  And I really believe that, if we pay attention to how things got so bad, we’ll learn how to make them better.

Federalist Society members have long believed that, if you change the way you talk about the law, you can change the law.

They are right.

If you listen to the U.S. Senate talk about judicial nominees, you’d be forgiven for thinking that originalism was a time-honored American value, one of the things we fought the British to protect.

But ironically enough, originalism — like the designated hitter — only dates back a few decades.

Indeed, as Cass Sunstein has pointed out, it was Robert Bork who first popularized the notion that the Constitution should be interpreted according to what we believe was the “original understanding” of its authors.

Just to clarify: That’s not Robert Bork the Founding Father.  That’s Robert Bork the 20th century conservative legal activist.

Originalism isn’t a pillar of our Constitutional history.  It’s a talking point.

During his confirmation hearing, John Roberts broke out another conservative talking point. He said: “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them.”  And he promised: “I will remember that it’s my job to call balls and strikes and not to pitch or bat.”

How ridiculous. Judges are nothing like umpires.

You know who agrees that judges are nothing like umpires?  The guy who came up with the umpire analogy in the first place.

In 1886, in State v. Crittenden, a Louisiana Supreme Court Justice ruled that “a trial is not a mere lutte” — lutte is a French term for a wrestling match, as this analogy dates back to when baseball was a just a cult phenomenon — “a trial is not a mere lutte between counsel, in which the judge sits merely as an umpire to decide disputes which may arise between them.”

So, when it comes to this analogy, I guess I’m an originalist.

But this kind of bamboozlement is effective.  You hear Senators of both parties rush to condemn judges who might “legislate from the bench.”

The end result is that people like Goodwin Liu — a brilliant, thoughtful, passionate young legal mind with a terrific life story and character references from the likes of Ken Starr — get tagged as dangerous radicals.

Look, say what you will about Ken Starr, but he’s not the sort of guy who pals around with dangerous radicals.

Well. Not left-wing radicals.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Kitty Fowler on 06/18/2010 - 09:45 pm.

    Luv you, Al! Keep up the good work.

    Kitty from NYC

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