Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Death of Constitutional Scholar Leonard Levy

The New York Times of September 1 (page C11) in an obituary by Adam Liptak reports the death of Leonard Levy, a well-known expert on constitutional law and constitutional history. Professor Levy had taught at Brandeis University and Claremont Graduate School.

Professor Levy won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1969 for his Origins of the Fifth Amendment; the Prize recognized the quality of Professor Levy's prose as well as of his scholarship. Professor Levy was non-partisan in his scholarship, and, according to Liptak, "disdained judges on the right and the left who molded history to their advantage." His work was cited many times by the United States Supreme Court, even though Professor Levy was not a lawyer. Professor Levy took "no pleasure" in the multiple citations of his works, because, as he once said, "'Two of my books'--those on the Fifth and First Amendments--'have been cited 10 or 12 times each and not once accurately, significantly or responsibly.'" This failure by the Court to understand his writing made Professor Levy feel that he had not "'contributed to any public understanding.'"

I was particularly interested to learn that Professor Levy had been "an active participant in Reagan-era debates over a mode of constitutional interpretation known as originalism." Professor Levy disagreed with this theory, calling it "a disservice to the grand, open-textured phrases in the Constitution, formulations that he said required fresh interpretation by each generation. 'The framers...had a genius for studied imprecision.'"

It is tragic to lose a scholar of Professor Levy's stature at any time, but it is particularly tragic to lose him at a time when the Constitution is under assault by the very people who are charged with upholding it.

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