In an apparent reference to the Reagan administration, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said yesterday that recent attacks on the court were "little more than arrogance cloaked as humility" and showed an "antipathy" to the rights of those in the minority.
Brennan, in a speech prepared for a seminar at Georgetown University, did not mention the administration by name. But as the court's leading liberal, he clearly intended to rebut attacks by Attorney General Edwin Meese III and other conservatives.
Meese, in a July speech to the American Bar Association, said recent Supreme Court rulings on church-state separation "would have struck the founding generation as somewhat bizarre."
Meese said the justices should stick to the literal words in the Constitution, adding that the administration would "endeavor to resurrect the original meaning of constitutional provisions" and the intentions of the Constitution's authors "as the only reliable guide."
That view, Brennan said, "feigns self-effacing deference to the specific judgments" of the Founding Fathers. "But, in truth, it is little more than arrogance cloaked as humility."
Brennan, a Democrat appointed in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, said it was "arrogant to pretend that from our vantage we can gauge accurately the intent of the framers . . . to specific, contemporary questions.
"All too often, sources of potential enlightment, such as records of the ratification debates, provide sparse or ambiguous evidence of the original intention," he said.
"Typically, all that can be gleaned is that the framers themselves did not agree about the application or meaning of particular constitutional provisions and hid their differences in cloaks of generality.
"Indeed, it is far from clear whose intention is relevant -- that of the drafters," members of the first Congress or "the ratifiers in the states?"
Brennan said those pressing the "original intent" analysis "have no familiarity with the historical record" and improperly justify it as a way to take politics out of judicial decision-making.
"The political underpinnings of such a choice should not escape notice," he said. "This is a choice no less political than any other; it expresses antipathy to claims of the minority to rights against the majority."
Meese and other conservative critics have long accused liberal justices of interfering in policy matters that conservatives say should, in a democracy, be left to elected officials.
Meese, more than any of his predecessors in the last 50 years, has waged a highly visible campaign against recent court decisions. The Justice Department has insisted that the court change prior rulings that place restrictions on police or that give women a constitutional right to choose an abortion, saying those matters should be left to elected state officials.
But Brennan said yesterday that "unabashed enshrinement of majority will would permit imposition of a social caste system or wholesale confiscation of property so long as a majority of the authorized legislative body, fairly elected, approved.
"Our Constitution could not abide such a situation. It is the very purpose of a Constitution -- and particularly of the Bill of Rights -- to declare certain values transcendent, beyond the reach of temporary political majorities."