Edwin Meese III

On July 9, 1985, Ed Meese dropped a constitutional bombshell on Washington, D.C. that shook the foundations of the federal judiciary all the way to the Supreme Court.

Meese’s words in a speech before the national convention of the American Bar Association – proclaiming that judges should be “expected to resist any political effort to depart from the literal provisions of the Constitution” – exploded upon the judiciary’s liberal stronghold built by a generation of activist judges and sparked anew a fire of commitment to the Founding Fathers’ vision of the Constitution.

Edwin Meese III served as President Ronald Reagan’s top policy adviser and the nation’s 75th attorney general, and to a group of distinguished Americans gathering tomorrow to honor him, Meese is a hero-like figure.

In a series of exclusive interviews with WND, a variety of leading conservatives praised Meese as responsible for “saving” Reagan’s presidency, masterminding the 1980’s economic boom, influencing the appointment of over half the federal judiciary, reshaping the Supreme Court by fighting for the confirmation of “originalist” justices like John Roberts and Samuel Alito, championing religious liberties and rescuing the Constitution from the dustbin of judicial history.

“Ed Meese worked harder and more successfully behind the scenes than any other person to make sure that the Reagan legacy of freedom has continued,” Alan Sears, president of Alliance Defense Fund, told WND. “And even today as we debate who will sit as justices to decide the future of our children in areas related to religious freedom, sanctity of life, marriage, family and economic areas, judges that were put on the Court because of the freedom philosophy that Ed espoused are going to protect our children.”

The ADF, along with a host committee that includes Nancy Reagan, John Ashcroft, Robert Bork and several other prominent legal and conservative leaders, will be holding a breakfast tomorrow in Washington, D.C., to recognize Meese’s global impact. The ADF will also be announcing formation of the annual Edwin Meese III Originalism and Religious Liberty Award.

“General Meese is being honored for his steadfast devotion to, and tireless pioneering work on behalf of, returning to the responsible philosophy of jurisprudence envisioned by our Founding Founders,” said Greg Scott, ADF’s director of media relations. “Future recipients of the Edwin Meese award will be those who follow in his large footsteps.”

“I have a great regard for the Alliance Defense Fund,” Meese told WND, “so I am very honored both to receive such an award and to have it named after me.”

Meese also said he hopes those that seek to “follow in his large footsteps” hold fast to one guiding principle: “fidelity to the Constitution and a willingness to uphold the principles of our nation’s Founders.”

According to host committee member T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr., a former top adviser in the Reagan administration and current president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Meese’s “large footsteps” were often taken under heavy fire.

“Against the power legions of the status quo, Ed Meese rode point for the Reagan revolution. The other side knew this, and attacked Ed with furor,” Cribb said. “Ed took hard-fought stands for smaller government, lower taxes, deregulation, the defense build-up and the strategic moves against the Soviet Union, stands that went against the recalcitrant conventional wisdom in the media, in the career bureaucracies of the government and in much of Congress, including many Republicans.”

Meese came under particular fire when, only a few months after his confirmation as attorney general, he made his now-famous speech before the ABA.

“The Court this term continued to roam at large in a veritable constitutional forest,” Meese declared, speaking of inconsistent Supreme Court decisions made in 1984 that impacted the size and authority of federal government, criminal law and freedom of religion. “Too many of the Court’s opinions were, on the whole, more policy choices than articulations of constitutional principle. The voting blocs, the arguments, all reveal a greater allegiance to what the Court thinks constitutes sound public policy than a deference to what the Constitution – its text and intention – may demand.”

In making an argument for “originalism,” the philosophy that the Constitution is best interpreted by the words and recorded meanings of our nation’s Founders, Meese added, “The permanence of the Constitution has been weakened. A constitution that is viewed as only what the judges say it is, is no longer a constitution in the true sense.”

Ed Meese, President Reagan (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

Meese told WND that he grew passionate about a federal government limited by the principles and documents of our nation’s founding when he was serving in California alongside its governor, Ronald Reagan.

The defining moment, Meese said, came when Reagan “pioneered welfare reform in California and had to obtain authorization from the federal government to take actions that were in the best interests of both California and the truly needy welfare recipients. This was quite contrary to the federalism concepts of the Founders.”

When Meese criticized the 1984 Supreme Court decisions and pledged that the Reagan administration would measure its decisions by an originalist view of limited government and separation of powers, however, he was answered publicly by two of the Court’s more widely-considered “liberal” justices, William Brennan and John Paul Stevens.

Though Brennan has since denied a speech he gave at Georgetown University later that year was a direct response to Meese, he did argue that “doctrinaire” originalism amounts to “arrogance cloaked as humility.”

Brennan argued instead, “The genius of the Constitution rests not in any static meaning it might have had in a world that is dead and gone, but in the adaptability of its great principles to cope with current problems and current needs.”

Brennan, who left the Court in 1990, was succeeded by Justice David Souter, who has since announced he will be stepping down in June.

“Now in 2009, Justice Souter is retiring, and we’re discussing who should replace him,” Sears told WND. “And the discussion really boils down to the two worldviews that Meese talked about: either that judges are to practice originalism, or the Constitution means whatever the people who hold office want it to mean.”

Meese’s pioneering in freedom

Sears also pointed out that when Meese challenged the judiciary to consider the Founders’ words as the final authority in Constitutional interpretation, especially in the area of religious liberty, it created within the legal realm an explosion of organizations seeking to protect and preserve freedoms.

“There’s no single person living today that has had more impact more broadly on the discussion of the role of the courts as it relates to religious liberty than Ed Meese,” Sears said. “And not just religious freedom, but property rights and other liberties. There were just a handful of small organizations in existence in 1985, but now, the freedom-based public interest law movement has exploded. … The bombshell that launched the movement was from Ed’s discussion about originalism.”

Sears even credited the existence of ADF itself to the reawakening of a hunger for – and the constitutional basis of – religious liberty prompted by Meese’s declaration of originalism.

“After Ed launched this debate, the scholarship dramatically grew, the discussion grew, the reaction was for people to get in the game,” Sears said. “In 1994, 35 religious leaders came together and said, ‘We are way off base in the field of religious liberty. There needs to be an alliance large enough to make a dramatic impact in this battle.’ Out of that came the ADF.”

Sears also told WND that Meese’s commitment to preserving freedom extended well beyond his years of serving as Reagan’s chief policy adviser and even beyond the borders of our country.

“I’ll never forget, I was with him in a meeting, and he was exhausted,” Sears recalled. “I asked him, ‘Where were you?’ He said, ‘I just got back from Hong Kong.’ As Margaret Thatcher was winding up affairs in Hong Kong, as the British were getting ready to exit, Ed Meese had gone over there to establish and protect democracy as they moved forward to the next step of government.”

Sears continued, “His entire career has been public service; he has had opportunity after opportunity to cash in, to make a lot of money and be placed in prominent positions. Instead he has chosen to stay on the front lines in the battle to promote liberty.”

Cribb once introduced the former attorney general by saying, “Ed Meese has always walked in pursuit of one goal – human freedom. Not freedom in the vulgar sense of license, nor even the freedom merely to acquire what is sometimes mistaken for the American dream. But freedom in an older sense of the word – freedom to choose the good. Freedom to make one’s own way in life, to choose for oneself how to behave honorably toward one’s country, and to live lovingly toward one’s family and friends. It is for this freedom to choose that Ed has toiled so mightily and well, and with so little thought for himself. The world is a more hospitable place to that freedom because, at a critical juncture in human affairs, Ed Meese was there.”

Meese’s investment in people

Several of those who plan to honor Meese at the ADF breakfast told WND that Meese’s legacy has proliferated not only in the realm of legal thought, but in the lives of the people Meese has influenced.

“Ed Meese understands more than anyone that people are policy,” said Leonard Leo, a member of the honorary breakfast host committee and executive vice president of The Federalist Society, which Meese serves as a member of the board of visitors.

“Three of our four founders of the Federalist Society were people who, in a lot of ways, studied at the feet of Ed Meese. He was very supportive of their early careers,” Leo told WND. “Countless people who have gone on to engage in other forms of public service and a number of people on the federal bench first cut their teeth in the law under Ed Meese’s direction.”

Leo continued, “He built an infrastructure of personnel within the justice department that was faithful to the separation of powers and the traditional limited judicial role, and that had a very important mark on the development of legal policy within the Reagan administration, which in turn greatly influenced future Republican administrations.”

In fact, by the time Ronald Reagan left office, the Republican president had appointed more than half of the federal judiciary, guided in a large part, by Ed Meese and originalist principles.

“I remember a very important meeting during George W. Bush’s administration,” Leo told WND. “We were in Chief of Staff Andy Card’s office conversing about the Supreme Court and the process by which a president ought to select his nomination. At just the right moment, Meese eloquently laid out what he thought was the appropriate standard for selection, and then he made the point that the president needs to recognize this is his most important legacy and that he needed to do the right thing, even though it was going to be tough fight.”

“If there is an indispensable man in the conservative movement, it is Ed Meese,” Cribb shared with WND. “He is the glue that holds us together, just as he held the Reagan Revolutionaries together in the 1980’s.

“Each year the administration held what was in essence a rally in Constitution Hall for the 3,000 top Reagan appointees,” Cribb explained. “Cabinet members would come onstage one-by-one to receptions that ranged from polite to enthusiastic – but it was Ed Meese who always brought the house down, just by walking onto the stage. The grateful voices of those young Reaganauts resound in my ears to this day.”

Meese’s commitment to character

“If Ed Meese is not a good man,” President Ronald Reagan once said, “there are no good men.”

ADF breakfast host committee member Timothy Goeglein, who worked as a special assistant to George W. Bush and therefore alongside Meese, and who now serves as vice president for external relations at Focus on the Family, used the term “great man.”

“When you’re working in a stressful situation and people are working on something really important together, a person’s character comes out,” Goeglein told WND. “Time after time I stood back and said, ‘Wow – what a great American, a person who puts country ahead of everything.”

When Cribb was of the young Reaganauts who “cut his teeth” in politics, thanks in part to Ed Meese, he also noticed the man’s commitment to country.

“He gave me my first chance to work for President Reagan,” Cribb said. “I went into the 1980 campaign prepared for the proverbial smoke-filled rooms, but was resigned to this because of the seismic importance of electing Ronald Reagan. To my delight, I found instead an organization dedicated to a vision of a restored America led by a citizen-politician named Ed Meese, who wanted nothing more or less than the public good.”

Cribb continued, “When Ed is convinced that the Constitution and sound public policy require a certain course, he does not pause to calculate personal costs.”

Meese told WND that his devotion to country was cemented by serving in the army reserve for 32 years in field artillery military intelligence and civil affairs, retiring as a colonel in 1984, only to take up the title of attorney general the next year.

“In all my life,” Sears told WND, “I’ve only known a handful of people who have given their entire lives to the service of our nation and others for long periods of time – we have many people who give for a time in the military, and those who give the ultimate sacrifice in that service – but Meese has served his nation every day of his life, across decades of service, with every ounce of his intellect and ability.”

Several of the breakfast host committee told WND of Meese’s humility, his patient approach in meetings that led him to prefer a few, well-timed words over the bombastic attention-getting declarations so often preferred in Washington circles.

Leo, however, shared with WND an even more personal story of the private side of Ed Meese.

“Few people know that General Meese had a brother who had spinal bifida, a potentially serious physical disability where quite often you lose mobility and suffer other secondary problems,” Leo related. “When General Meese learned that one of my children was born with that condition, he approached me.

“We had a very nice and frankly inspiring conversation about what life was like in the Meese household and what a wonderful relationship he and his brother had,” Leo said. “That told me a lot about his sense of charity and decency, not only because he was trying to impart on my family that we were going to be living life of challenges, of course, accompanied by both joy and value, but also because it shed some light on the kind of person he was, revealing from his childhood the care and attention and dignity he showed his brother.”

Ed Meese’s dedication to freedom and originalism in charting a constitutional path of government extends beyond Capitol Hill, as he has served on several boards, think tanks, fellowships and policy centers including the Heritage Foundation, Discovery Institute, Council for National Policy, Iraq Study Group, Constitution Project, Hoover Institution and others.

“Ed Meese is one of the most important leaders of the conservative movement in the last 100 years,” Goeglein told WND. “Both when Reagan was a governor in California and president of the Unites States, he routinely looked to Meese in variety of roles for the best counsel and seasoned advice that he could possibly get.”

WND asked Meese if he would share any of that advice with our readers.

His answer: “The people have to first of all become involved in the political decision making of the country and be knowledgeable of the key issues as well as of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

“Too often today, because of a lack of education at the college and high school level, we have citizens who are civically and economically illiterate,” Meese continued. “A knowledgeable body of citizens is necessary to preserve both liberty and our constitutional republic.”

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