Yet today, you’re a conservative icon, and federalist societies abound on university campuses, and originalism and textualism are no longer marginal. Do you feel like you’re winning or losing the battle for constitutional interpretation?
I don’t know how much progress I’ve made on originalism. That’s to be seen. I do think originalism is more respectable than it was. But there’s still only two justices up here who are thoroughgoing originalists. I do think things are better than they were. For example, I truly thought I’d never see an originalist on the faculty of Harvard Law School. You know, everybody copies Harvard—that’s the big ship. There are now three originalists on the faculty, and I think I heard that they’ve just hired, or are considering hiring, a fourth. I mean, that’s amazing to me. Elena Kagan did that, and the reason she did it is that you want to have on your faculty representatives of all responsible points of view. What it means is that at least originalism is now regarded as a respectable approach to constitutional interpretation. And it really wasn’t twenty years ago, it was not even worth talking about in serious academic circles.
An area where I think I have made more progress is textualism. I think the current Court pays much more attention to the words of a statute than the Court did in the eighties. And uses much less legislative history. If you read some of our opinions from the eighties, my God, two thirds of the opinions were discussing committee reports and floor statements and all that garbage. We don’t do much of that anymore. And I think I have assisted in that transition.
Fifty years from now, which decisions in your tenure do you think will be heroic?
Oh, my goodness. I have no idea. You know, for all I know, 50 years from now I may be the Justice Sutherland of the late-twentieth and early-21st century, who’s regarded as: “He was on the losing side of everything, an old fogey, the old view.” And I don’t care.
Do you think you’re headed in that direction?
I have no idea. There are those who think I am, I’m sure. I can see that happening, just as some of the justices in the early years of the New Deal are now painted as old fogies. It can happen.
Wow, it’s amazing your mind even went there. I ask about a triumph, and you give me another answer entirely, about the possibility of failure. I was expecting you to end on a high note. Do you want to try another stab at a heroic decision?
Heroic is probably the wrong word. I mean the most heroic opinion—maybe the only heroic opinion I ever issued— was my statement refusing to recuse.
From the case involving Vice-President Cheney, with whom you’d gone hunting?
I thought that took some guts. Most of my opinions don’t take guts. They take smarts. But not courage. And I was proud of that. I did the right thing and it let me in for a lot of criticism and it was the right thing to do and I was proud of that. So that’s the only heroic thing I’ve done.
As to which is the most impressive opinion: I still think Morrison v. Olson. But look, we have different standards, I suppose, for what’s a great opinion. I care about the reasoning. And the reasoning in Morrison, I thought, was devastating—devastating of the majority. If you ask me which of my opinions will have the most impact in the future, it probably won’t be that dissent; it’ll be some majority opinion. But it’ll have impact in the future not because it’s so beautifully reasoned and so well written. It’ll have impact in the future because it’s authoritative. That’s all that matters, unfortunately.