Attorney General Edwin Meese III yesterday attacked recent Supreme Court decisions on the separation of church and state, saying the Constitution's authors would find the court's views "somewhat bizarre."
Meese, speaking at the American Bar Association convention here, also criticized the justices for "ad hoc" rulings, based on "policy choices" rather than on "constitutional principles," and said the court continues "to roam at large through a constitutional forest."
Meese accused the justices in general of a "mistaken understanding of constitutional theory" and specifically condemned the court's rulings in four cases in which a narrow majority rejected the administration's views.
The administration failed in its efforts on behalf of New York and Michigan programs to provide public school teachers for church schools and to permit a religiously motivated "moment of silence" law for Alabama schools and a Connecticut law that required businesses to let employes take holidays on their sabbath days.
Meese praised the justices, who finished the 1984-85 term last week, for what he said were "progressive rulings" in criminal law, singling out cases in which the court expanded police powers to detain and search suspects without court warrants. But he did not mention a number of significant cases in which the court upheld suspects' rights and even extended some liberal Warren court rulings.
Meese's review yesterday of the court's rulings in this area was far less enthusiastic than the administration's assessment a year ago of similar rulings. He said the "trend is a favorable one," and that the court was giving more flexibility to law enforcement to see "whether law enforcement will use that flexibility wisely."
He also sharply criticized the court for requiring state and local governments to adhere to federal minimum wage and hour laws. That ruling, he said "undermines the stability" of state and local governments and the constitutional principle of state power to serve as a "buffer" between individuals and the federal government.
"Federalism is one of the most basic principles of our Constitution," Meese said, adding that "decentralized government" was essential to "our ultimate goal of political liberty.
"We hope for a day when the court returns to the basic principles of the Constitution," Meese said, following the "original intent" and words of the Founding Fathers "as the only reliable guide."
Meese seemed to be adopting a view, held by some conservatives in the administration, that the court has improperly applied the Bill of Rights to the states. The administration, according to this view, should push the justices to reverse that theory.
Meese, echoing that position, said that the Bill of Rights was intended to apply only to the federal government and that the court's applications of them to the states in the last 60 years was based on an "intellectually shaky" view.
But Meese tempered his remarks in discussions with reporters afterwards, saying, "I do not have any particular quarrel with what the court has done" in incorporating the Bill of Rights to apply to the states -- just in how the court "has applied it in particular cases."
Meese's sharpest direct criticism of the court during his speech focused on the religion cases, saying that the First Amendment was intended only to "prohibit religious tyranny, not to undermine religion generally."
Meese, who will play a major role in any Reagan appointments to the high court, told reporters he did not know of any planned retirements.