The Great Debate
Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.
To the Text and Teaching Symposium, Georgetown University
October 12, 1985, Washington, DC
I am deeply grateful for the invitation to participate in the "Text and Teaching" symposium. This rare opportunity to explore
classic texts with participants of such wisdom, acumen and insight as those who have preceded and will follow me to this podium
is indeed exhilarating. But it is also humbling. Even to approximate the standards of excellence of these vigorous and graceful
intellects is a daunting task. I am honored that you have afforded me this opportunity to try.
It will perhaps not surprise you that the text I have chosen for exploration is the amended Constitution of the United States,
which, of course, entrenches the Bill of Rights and the Civil War amendments, and draws sustenance from the bedrock principles
of another great text, the Magna Carta. So fashioned, the Constitution embodies the aspiration to social justice, brotherhood, and
human dignity that brought this nation into being. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
solemnly committed the United States to be a country where the dignity and rights of all persons were equal before all authority.
In all candor we must concede that part of this egalitarianism in America has been more pretension than realized fact. But we are
an aspiring people, a people with faith in progress. Our amended Constitution is the lodestar for our aspirations. Like every text
worth reading, it is not crystalline. The phrasing is broad and the limitations of its provisions are not clearly marked. Its majestic
generalities and ennobling pronouncements are both luminous and obscure. This ambiguity of course calls forth interpretation,
the interaction of reader and text. The encounter with the constitutional text has been, in many senses, my life's work.
My approach to this text may differ from the approach of other participants in this symposium to their texts. Yet such differences
may themselves stimulate reflection about what it is we do when we "interpret" a text. Thus I will attempt to elucidate my
approach to the text as well as my substantive interpretation.
Perhaps the foremost difference is the fact that my encounters with the constitutional text are not purely or even primarily
introspective; the Constitution cannot be for me simply a contemplative haven for private moral reflection. My relation to this
great text is inescapably public. That is not to say that my reading of the text is not a personal reading, only that the personal
reading perforce occurs in a public context, and is open to critical scrutiny from all quarters.
The Constitution is fundamentally a public text-the monumental charter of a government and a people-and a Justice of the
Supreme Court must apply it to resolve public controversies. For, from our beginnings, a most important consequence of the
constitutionally created separation of powers has been the American habit, extraordinary to other democracies, of casting social,