NEWS

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November 11, 2005

Attorney General visits Law School

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales criticized justices who cite foreign law in their opinions when he delivered a talk entitled “Foreign Law and Constitutional Interpretation” Wednesday afternoon at the U of C Law School.

Gonzales centered his talk around issues of constitutionality, saying he feared that the practice of citing foreign law “may undermine the long tradition of reverence that Americans have for the supreme law of the land—the Constitution of the United States.”

Gonzales emphasized that the Constitution, rather than foreign law, represented “the will of the American people.”

“To allow the views of foreign judges and legislators, who are under no oath to uphold the United States Constitution, to govern here is the antithesis of democratic accountability,” he said.

He explained that the Supreme Court is supposed to use the Constitution only when assessing the legality of American elected officials’ actions.

“It is one thing for the people’s representatives to consider and adopt laws that draw on the experience of foreign nations,” Gonzales said. “It is quite another for unelected judges, charged with determining the will of the people as they expressed it in the Constitution, to rely on foreign experience as a basis for rejecting the actions of those elected representatives.”

The attorney general said the trend can have practical issues, since justices will not be able to examine foreign law as carefully and systematically as they would be able to analyze the Constitution. He said he did not want the justices merely to cite the foreign laws that they “happened to stumble upon.”

“I therefore think it is unrealistic—and potentially problematic—to expect a judge, or to ask a Justice Department lawyer, no matter how conscientious and impartial and brilliant, to perform a thorough comparative law analysis in the process of constitutional interpretation,” Gonzales said.

Fifteen minutes before the talk, students from the Law School and College were turned away, disappointed, after being told that the lecture hall was too full. Inside the room, students were perched on the stairs to hear the attorney general.

Gonzales answered questions from the crowd after his talk. After responding to several pointed questions, Gonzales said, jokingly, “I can tell you’re all law students.”

Megan Wachspress, a fourth-year in the College, asked Gonzales whether international law should be relevant for questions of greater moral significance:

“Why isn’t it possible to take into that gray area of moral consideration by the judges, overwhelming precedent by the international community which we claim should hold the same principles of freedom and equality that we claim for ourselves?”

After she finished her question, several audience members started clapping.

Gonzales responded by referring to the key focal point of his speech: the constitutionality of citing foreign law.

“This is not about what is morally right, morally wrong, morally accepted…It’s about interpreting our Constitution,” he said.