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VINE VOICEon August 17, 2004
I'd like to mention, first of all, what this book it not. It is not for the casual observer of the American judicial system. Justice Scalia gives a probing examination of various methods used in Constitutional and judicial interpretation. If the reader is not consumed with learning law, or delineating the intent of the Constitution, this book will probably be a major disappointment.

On the other hand, if you have a solid foundation of knowledge on the judiciary and the U.S. Constitution, you will enjoy this book and will learn a great deal of what Justice Scalia has to offer. Scalia offers up a 50 page paper on the various methods of judicial interpretation, each methods strengths and weaknesses, and the how and why of whether or not each method is viable.

Scalia's paper is then cross-examined by Ronald Dworkin, Mary Ann Glendon, Amy Gutmann, Lawrence Tribe and Gordon Wood. Scalia then offers up his rebuttal and I believe, strengthens his theories of judicial interpretation. I am not going to go into my own how's and why's, as I am a fan of Scalia's and would rather allow the reader to reach their own conclusions.

Whether you like this book, or hate it, one thing is for certain, you will come away with a much better knowledge of the U.S. judicial system, how it reaches some of its conclusions, and what the consequences of continuing with current methods of judicial interpretation will be on our country.

Monty Rainey
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VINE VOICEon March 28, 2005
I loved the format of the book! Scalia presents his judicial interpretative process, and honestly admits hypocrisy when he occasionally votes ideology rather than using his system. Then, rather than providing a half-hearted attack on his ideological opponents, he invites them to respond to his thesis, each with their own chapter!

You may not agree with Scalia, but you can't doubt his moral courage based on his invitation for criticism in his own book.

I also appreciated the chapter on the structure of Germany's Constitution to help us understand why principle, rather than statue, plays such a big role in American judicial interpretative processes.

Everyone that cares about the Supreme Court should read this book. I have yet to find a better book to learn the motivations and processes utilized by each ideological camp. After reading this book, my ability to understand the logic of the court, for both rulings and the opinions, has been greatly enhanced.

While unintended, Scalia also helped cement my personal belief that a blend of original meaning (aka textualism) and abstract principalism, and not Scalia's textualist approach alone, is by far the optimal method for judicial interpretation based on our Constitution.
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on May 15, 1997
I assume you have seen a description of the book already. The book is good enough to be recommended overall, but there were some disappointments. First, the justice does not stay long on his professed topic, the interpretation of statutes, but goes over into constitutional interpretation. Those who make replies follow gladly, and there is really little on the whole about statutory instead of constitutional interpretation. Moreover, the justice did not make it clear enough to me how his textualist philosophy differs from literalism, which he explicitly disavows. Also dissappointing is that I think the justice could have made a much stronger case for what I do glean to be his philosophy by invoking legal principles already understood when the constitution was written, and especially by invoking Justice Story's brilliant decision in Martin v Hunter's Lessee. In that decision rules of constitutional interpretation are stated clearly and authoritatively, and are much along the lines of what Scalia advocates. Lastly, Justice Scalia's essay does not measure up to the keenness of insight and language he shows in his best dissents, though there are some good moments.

Despite these drawbacks, it is a very thought- provoking work and its brevity gives one less of an excuse for not reading it. It is largely free of technical vocabulary and there are no arcane discussions.
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on December 9, 2001
This book is a real treat for anyone who loves legal (constitutional that is) thought. It would also make a great introduction into what several of the greatest thinkers in the Anglo-American legal profession think. The book is mainly a lecture by Scalia where he lays out his theory of 'textualism,' that is closely grounding constitutional interpretation to the original meaning of the words of the constitutional (or statutory) text. It is a spirited explanation of the theory and includes defenses against some of the more common attacks on the theory. But the book gets better. Four legal experts, Laruence Tribe, Ronald Dworkin, a historian and Glendon all give their comments on textualism. Scalia then replies to these comments at the end. A wonderful look into debate between five incredible minds who often diasgree.
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on December 17, 1997
Antonin Scalia is blessed with a powerful intellect and a persuasive manner of expression. It's about time that a member of the US Supreme Court explained in terms intelligible to the average "newspaper reader" just what is going on in federal appeals courts. If not all of Justice Scalia's recommendations are correct, he certainly, at long last, has been able to ask the right questions. Proponents of judicial activism (and Scalia graciously shares space with two of the most famous, Tribe & Dworkin) will be hard-pressed to keep up the pretense that federal courts today are much more than arenas for elite social engineers to rework society in their own image and likeness. A fine study in modern legal philosophy, I recommend this work with few reservations. My complete review of Justice Scalia's book can be found in "National Catholic Register" 26 Oct. - 1 Nov. 1997, p. 6. I have seen the review posted on the Web as well.
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on August 8, 2004
Antonin Scalia might be best described as a conservative American. Conservatism often means not taking the "far-out-there" approach to life.

Although his section of the book is rather short, it is a bit difficult to follow for those of us who are not lawyers. Nevertheless, it is an excellent view into his thinking process. It details the reasons for not siding with contemporary liberal thinking, believing that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted literally (in most cases).

I read the book a few pages at a time, absorbed what I read, and read more the next day. Frequently, during the responses to his writings by other prominent lawyers, I found myself going back and re-reading parts of his writings again. To complete the book and understand it I probably read the entire book several times - back and forth between the writers.

Whatever your political leanings, it is an insight into why one Supreme Court Justice votes the way he does.

I wish all the Justices would write a similar book so we could understand their viewpoints.
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on October 30, 2001
In this tidy book, Justice Scalia puts forward his theory of jurisprudence and takes on the subject of judicial philosophy and what he calls the modern movement of judicial activism. He begins by giving an overview of the history of common law and judicial review, in which he contends that judges historically respected stare decisis - that is, previous rulings. Only in modern times, with the rise of democratic activism, has the desire of judges to "make law" become a problem of significant proportions.
Scalia then gets to the heart of his argument - that the role of the judge is not to ascertain the intent of legislators, but rather to ascertain the meaning of the words contained in a particular document. In this sense, he a textual purist compared to activists who will search out the meaning of particular pieces of legislation by evaluating legislative history, popular press, Congressional record, etc. He concedes that language must be interpreted, but he argues that there is a disciplined approach, and a liberal approach. The disciplined approach he supports would evaluate text within the notion of reasonable interpretation, "placed alongside the remainder of the corpus juris."
"Government by unexpressed intent is simply tyranny," Scalia argues. "That seems to me the essence of the famous American ideal set forth in the Massachusetts Constitution. A government of laws, not of men. Men may intend what they will; but it is only the laws that they enact which bind us."
Scalia argues that the fact that some texts bear multiple interpretations does not sink the enterprise of textualism. The divide on constitutional questions is not between what the framers intended and what they wrote, but rather between original meaning and current meaning. Scalia argues it is precisely the threat of abolishing cherished rights that makes original meaning important - it is a protection against those, (say Nazis) who would seek to impose a new order or new interpretation of acceptable governance. He argues that the notion of a "living constitution" has narrowed the straits of American freedom, not expanded them. The prevailing mood may or may not be just in the eyes of history, but leave that to the legislators and the great debates among thinkers and politicians; don't seek to encode today's moods in tomorrow's constitution through judicial activism. The avenues for changing the constitution and expanding its purview are well known -- otherwise, leave legislating to the legislatures.
Tribe and Dworkin offer the most interesting rebuttals. Dworkin seeks to root constitutional interpretation in broad principles of understanding and rights; Tribe concedes he has no theory of jurisprudence, other than he finds it difficult to accept the certitude of either Dworkin or Scalia that they have the right interpretation. His is a strange argument. Scalia never says the Constitution does not bear multiple interpretations, but he does argue for a more disciplined approach, in which rights are not found willy nilly in the minds of judges and then imposed on the original document by which we are governed. One annoying aspect the book: Tribe responds both to Scalia's original essay and his counter rebuttal within the first rebuttal -- before we have even read Scalia's response. This got a tad confusing and did not add much to the overall discussion.
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on August 7, 2009
In what may be the most important and timely law book of recent times, Justice Scalia takes aim at the debilitating disease of judicial lawmaking and offers a vigorous explication and defense of textualism and originalism, the twin pillars of his own jurisprudence. He does so persuasively, concisely, and accessibly, and with his trademark logical brilliance. Though A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION is certainly targeted to the legal community and laymen may find some concepts abstruse, anyone with a strong interest in political science or constitutional government will find the book greatly enriching.

The book is essentially a collection of essays and takes the form of a discourse between Scalia and four prominent colleagues: historian Gordon Wood and legal scholars Laurence Tribe, Mary Ann Glendon, and Ronald Dworkin. The book checks in at a breezy 159 pages, with 46 devoted to Scalia's main essay and another 12 as a response to the commentaries. The commentaries themselves average roughly 20 pages per author.

The crux of Scalia's essay is that judges who "interpret" statutory and constitutional texts on the basis of what they think the law ought to be, rather than on what it actually is, are usurping the legislature and undermining both our constitutional form of government and the famous American ideal that ours is "[a] government of laws, not of men." Unfortunately, such judges have come to predominate due to deficiencies in legal education and routinely distort or outright ignore legal texts in order to achieve the outcome they deem desirable from a policy standpoint. For extrinsic validation of Scalia's premise, one need look no further than Supreme Court nominee Sonya Sotomayor, who has repeatedly expressed the disconcerting view that the job of a judge is to make policy.

In response to this corrosive epidemic, Scalia points to textualism and originalism as the panaceas. Scalia's particular brand of textualism--the irreproachable philosophy that enacted law must be interpreted consistently with the text itself--is defined by the principle that texts should neither be interpreted strictly nor leniently, but "reasonably, to contain all that they fairly mean." Similarly, Scalia's form of originalism (original meaning, as opposed to original intent) holds that constitutional provisions should be interpreted according to what a reasonable person living at the time the provision was ratified would understand it to mean. Where textualism ties judicial interpretation to the text, original meaning ties interpretation of the text to the time period in which it was enacted. This makes an abundance of sense for a variety of reasons, namely because only the text IS the law, and only a temporally-fixed interpretation reflects the will of the legislative body that enacted the law and provides any real protection to the citizens living under it.

Having articulated his own jurisprudence, Scalia concludes with a scathing attack against the notion of a "Living Constitution," a philosophy antithetical to originalism that argues the Constitution can evolve and take on new meanings over time.

While Scalia's contributions are first-class, the comments leave much to be desired. Wood's essay is a bland historical overview of judicial lawmaking in America and fails to engage Scalia's ideas beyond suggesting the problem may go back longer than the Justice realizes. Glendon's note is a comparison between the interpretive skills of practitioners in the civil and common law systems, and she is generally supportive of Scalia. Dworkin's effort is probably the best of the bunch, as he is the only one who offers a cogent, if unavailing, challenge to originalism. Nevertheless, Dworkin's view of constitutional interpretation collapses under its own weight during a debate over the Eighth Amendment: if, as he argues, the term "cruel and unusual" is to be defined anew by each generation, then what protection would it provide to those who happen to find themselves living during a future, more brutal generation? Answer: None. Dworkin would sap the Constitution of its protections by converting it into a pro-majoritarian document, which is contrary to the very purpose of a constitution.

The biggest disappointment is Tribe, an acolyte of the "Living Constitution" whose comment boils down to inane, conclusory criticisms of originalism as imperfect, a bunch of nonsense about "transtemporal[ity]" and constitutional passages being "launched upon a historic voyage of interpretation," and a convoluted vision of the Constitution as being made up of an expandable "periphery" and a "concrete core" of rights. This tripe is bad enough, but what causes Tribe, Barack Obama's constitutional law professor, to lose all credibility is that he expressly admits at one point that he actually has no interpretative philosophy of his own--even if his model were accepted as valid, he concedes he doesn't know how one could determine which constitutional rights are "aspirational" and capable of expansion over time, and which are stuck in the "concrete core." One can surmise that those rights which Tribe favors would be given the expansive, evolutionary interpretation, while those he disfavors would be given the narrow, static reading. What Tribe articulates is not a coherent jurisprudence to guide judges in interpreting the Constitution, but rather an invitation to create a wholly new one by judicial fiat--a government of men, not of laws. With abominable legal instruction like this, it is unsurprising that Obama picks his nominees on the basis of decidedly non-judicial qualities like "empathy."

The mediocre commentaries notwithstanding, this is an immensely valuable book for the extended glimpse it provides into the mind and jurisprudence of one of the most important jurists ever to sit on the Supreme Court. Even if Scalia is unable to win your over, he will challenge your views with such force that you will inevitably be left with a deeper understanding of the Constitution. One could only imagine how much better off this nation, its court system, and its Constitution would be had people like Obama and Sotomayor been forced to read this book during their formative law school years. A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION should be required reading for any prospective law student or member of the bar.
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on January 10, 2011
I read the text by Scalia at about the same time as I read Active liberty by Stephen Breyer. I found Scalia's text fun and informative, but Breyer's book wise and informative. I found Scalia's text to be more based on opinions whereas Breyer's text was more evidence based. Scalia's writings more personal emotional, Breyer's writings more emotional on behalf of the American society. I would suggest that any curriculum should include both texts because they, together, build a picture of the US society in judicial terms. To a non-US person, they help us understand why the US societies are as they are, ranging from Sarah Pailin's to Barac Obama's, as well as understand their additional idiosyncrasies.
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on March 4, 2009
For upcoming student of political science and the interpretation of the constitution, I LOVE this book. Gives an insight into the most unappreciated methods of interpreting the constitution. I recommend it 100% and I am glad that it is a whole section in our philosophy of law class.
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