Quips and Quotes: What Would James Madison Do?

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

Editor's Note: As soon as I graduated from Notre Dame, I realized that I never took proper advantage of one of the biggest perks of being at a university: all those lectures. You may not be able to pop by DeBart 101 every week to listen to experts opine about cell biology or geopolitics, but, in this new series, we're bringing the lecture hall to you. Our editors will scour the campus for one presentation per week to attend and share with our readers, reporting back with a quote and a few highlights from the latest event in the life of the mind. 

"It's like the people sober appealing to the people drunk."

Paraphrasing former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, Judge Amy Coney Barrett ’97J.D. used this metaphor at her September 12 Hesburgh Lecture for the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley. It was one of two she used to describe the role of the Constitution on modern lawmaking (the other being Odysseus’ crew tying him to the ship’s mast to avoid being tempted by the sirens). The takeaway? The Constitution is a steady, guiding force to pull legislators and judges back to America’s founding ideals when the modern world tempts them astray. 


The metaphors were just the beginning of Barrett’s main task for the evening, tracing the history of constitutional originalism on the judicial bench. Despite giving her lecture the catchy title “What Would James Madison Do?”, she said that the ultimate goal of originalism — and, indeed of constitutional interpretation in general — is not to get inside the heads of the Founding Fathers. Rather, it’s to determine how the founders’ words can coexist with and inform the technologically advanced society we live in today. 


Barrett has given Hesburgh Lectures at other Notre Dame clubs before, but this was her first time giving the keynote here in South Bend. Her selection (and the near-capacity crowd in the Leighton Concert Hall at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center) probably had something to do with the prominent year she’s had: In addition to being named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Barrett made headlines this summer for reportedly appearing on President Donald Trump’s shortlist of candidates to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court.


Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine.