BY TIFFANY BENJAMIN
Surrounded by a small crowd of Harvard Law School students and faculty, former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger spoke Monday on the importance of liberal constitutional interpretation.
“Today the institutions of national government are being weakened and in some venues are held in low esteem,” he said. “Some of this disparaging evidence has been justified because presidents of both parties and congresses of both parties have engaged in lots of trivial legislation and lots of trivial debates. But we should recall what a strong national government has accomplished over two centuries.”
Dellinger’s speech, entitled “Reimagining the Constitution / Recapturing the Flag” was hosted by the American Constitution Society, a national organization focused on encouraging liberal and left-wing students to discuss the ideals of the U.S. Constitution. Dellinger serves as a member of the society’s national advisory board.
Dellinger’s address followed constitutional history from the Constitutional Convention of 1776 to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, focusing on the development of constitutional interpretation in the eyes of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“What can we learn from Lincoln and King? I believe that we can learn that the vision of American constitutionalism will always be a contested one. And that those who lack the power of position or the perquisites of office should be about the business of staking a claim to those values they believe constitute the legitimate beings of American constitutionalism,” he said.
Dellinger claimed that liberal and left-wing individuals “have for too long said that aggressive constitutionalism was a matter of preference and not a matter of law.” Liberal scholars, he said, should try to be as vocal as their conservative counterparts.
“We should not concede that the founding and the best account of our substantive constitutional tradition necessarily culminate with the constitution of a balkanized republic with a national legislature that lacks the power to protect the liberty and quality of its citizens against the parochial intrusions of state and local bureaucracies,” he said. “We should not concede that the best vision and the founding tradition of our constitution is a Republican national legislature treated by its Supreme Court like the counsel of a lower court judge.”
Two-L Anjan Choudhury, who is president of the American Constitution Society, said that he was inspired by Dellinger’s work in constitutional litigation and his “invocation that ideas matter.”
For his part, Dellinger said that the Society’s mission of examining and re-examining the Constitution is a vital one. “It is to the future we must look as we attempt to reclaim the past.”
Dellinger served as Solicitor General during the 1996-1997 Supreme Court term, where he tackled such issues as physician-assisted suicide, the line-item veto and the Paula Jones case. Prior to his term as Solicitor General, Dellinger served as an advisor to President Clinton on constitutional issues, and then as Assistant Attorney General and head of the Office of Legal Counsel. He was also a Douglas B. Magg Professor at Duke University. He currently works for the O’Melveny & Myers law firm in Washington, D.C.