11/8/19

The Court Moves Right

The Court Moves Right
But judges have a lot of unlearning to do.
Myron Magnet
Autumn 2019

Less than a decade ago, surveying the shambles that half a century’s judicial activism and judicial abdication had made of the Framers’ original Constitution, such insightful commentators as Philip Howard and Mark Levin feared that only a new constitutional convention could fix the mess. Not a full replay of the 1787 drama, but something almost as drastic—the amending convention that the Constitution’s Article V outlines. Its terms allow two-thirds of state legislatures to name a council empowered to frame a balanced-budget or income-tax-limit amendment, say, or—most important—to repeal unconstitutional laws, regulations, and Supreme Court decisions. Three-quarters of the legislatures would then need to ratify such measures.

Now, though, the advent of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh has reshaped the Supreme Court enough to stop such despondent talk. While the decisions announced at the end of the Court’s term in June, marking the first year with both new justices on the bench, don’t amount to a stampede toward the Right, they display a wholesome focus on what the Constitution and statutes actually say. The Nine are “redirecting the judge’s interpretive task back to its roots, away from open-ended policy appeals and speculation about legislative intentions and toward the traditional tools of interpretation that judges have employed for centuries to elucidate the law’s original public meaning,” Gorsuch explained in a June opinion. “Today, it is even said that we judges are, to one degree or another, ‘all textualists now.’ ” And that’s already a quiet revolution. Continue reading

10/1/19

Imprimis


Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution
September 2019 • Volume 48, Number 9 • Myron Magnet
Myron Magnet
Author, Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on September 17, 2019, at Hillsdale College’s Constitution Day Celebration in Washington, D.C.

Clarence Thomas is our era’s most consequential jurist, as radical as he is brave. During his almost three decades on the bench, he has been laying out a blueprint for remaking Supreme Court jurisprudence. His template is the Constitution as the Framers wrote it during that hot summer in Philadelphia 232 years ago, when they aimed to design “good government from reflection and choice,” as Alexander Hamilton put it in the first Federalist, rather than settle for a regime formed, as are most in history, by “accident and force.” In Thomas’s view, what the Framers achieved remains as modern and up-to-date—as avant-garde, even—as it was in 1787.

What the Framers envisioned was a self-governing republic. Citizens would no longer be ruled. Under laws made by their elected representatives, they would be free to work out their own happiness in their own way, in their families and local communities. But since those elected representatives are born with the same selfish impulses as everyone else—the same all-too-human nature that makes government necessary in the first place—the Framers took care to limit their powers and to hedge them with checks and balances, to prevent the servants of the sovereign people from becoming their masters. The Framers strove to avoid at all costs what they called an “elective despotism,” understanding that elections alone don’t ensure liberty.

Did they achieve their goal perfectly, even with the first ten amendments that form the Bill of Rights? No—and they recognized that. It took the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments—following a fearsome war—to end the evil of slavery that marred the Framers’ creation, but that they couldn’t abolish summarily if they wanted to get the document adopted. Thereafter, it took the Nineteenth Amendment to give women the vote, a measure that followed inexorably from the principles of the American Revolution.

During the ratification debates, one gloomy critic prophesied that if citizens ratified the Constitution, “the forms of republican government” would soon exist “in appearance only” in America, as had occurred in ancient Rome. American republicanism would indeed eventually decline, but the decline took a century to begin and unfolded with much less malice than it did at the end of the Roman Republic. Nor was it due to some defect in the Constitution, but rather to repeated undermining by the Supreme Court, the president, and the Congress.

The result today is a crisis of legitimacy, fueling the anger with which Americans now glare at one another. Half of us believe we live under the old Constitution, with its guarantee of liberty and its expectation of self-reliance. The other half believe in a “living constitution”—a regime that empowers the Supreme Court to sit as a permanent constitutional convention, issuing decrees that keep our government evolving with modernity’s changing conditions. The living constitution also permits countless supposedly expert administrative agencies, like the SEC and the EPA, to make rules like a legislature, administer them like an executive, and adjudicate and punish infractions of them like a judiciary.

To the Old Constitutionalists, this government of decrees issued by bureaucrats and judges is not democratic self-government but something more like tyranny—hard or soft, depending on whether or not you are caught in the unelected rulers’ clutches. To the Living Constitutionalists, on the other hand, government by agency experts and Ivy League-trained judges—making rules for a progressive society (to use their language) and guided by enlightened principles of social justice that favor the “disadvantaged” and other victim groups—constitutes real democracy. So today we have the Freedom Party versus the Fairness Party, with unelected bureaucrats and judges saying what fairness is.

This is the constitutional deformation that Justice Thomas, an Old Constitutionalist in capital letters, has striven to repair. If the Framers had wanted a constitution that evolved by judicial ruling, Thomas says, they could have stuck with the unwritten British constitution that governed the American colonists in just that way for 150 years before the Revolution. But Americans chose a written constitution, whose meaning, as the Framers and the state ratifying conventions understood it, does not change—and whose purpose remains, as the Preamble states, to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

In Thomas’s view, there is no nobler or more just purpose for any government. If the Framers failed to realize that ideal fully because of slavery, the Civil War amendments proved that their design was, in Thomas’s word, “perfectible.” Similarly, if later developments fell away from that ideal, it is still perfectible, and Thomas takes it as his job—his calling, he says—to perfect it. And that can mean that where earlier Supreme Court decisions have deviated from what the document and its amendments say, it is the duty of today’s justices to overrule them. Consequently, while the hallowed doctrine of stare decisis—the rule that judges are bound to respect precedent—certainly applies to the lower courts, Supreme Court justices owe fidelity to the Constitution alone, and if their predecessors have construed it erroneously, today’s justices must say so and overturn their decisions. Continue reading

09/30/19

Misjudging Clarence Thomas

Misjudging Clarence Thomas
Corey Robin’s assessment of the Supreme Court justice is lost in left field.
Myron Magnet
September 29, 2019 Arts and CulturePolitics and law
The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, by Corey Robin (Metropolitan Books, 320 pp., $27)

What deliciously ironic wit the New Yorker’s first art editor, Rea Irvin, deployed in his iconic drawing of Eustace Tilley, the Regency dandy quizzically inspecting a butterfly through a monocle on the magazine’s inaugural cover nearly a century ago. Ah yes, we Gotham cosmopolites view the rest of America as exotic insects worth a moment’s gaze as they hatch from the basket of deplorables and flit by for their 24 hours in the sun. But, Irvin hinted, what an affected fop is Eustace himself—as showy as the bright creature catching his glance but oh, how much more contrived in his top hat and impossibly high neckcloth. I can’t help wishing that Corey Robin, a Brooklyn College professor who has made a career of turning a supercilious monocle on conservatives and explaining their curious, “reactionary” ideas to his fellow enlightened “progressives,” had shown a scintilla of Irvin’s wry self-knowledge in his new book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, an excerpt of which the New Yorker coincidentally has just published. But since Robin’s assessment of the Supreme Court justice lacks a single self-questioning moment, let’s look back at him through his monocle and take our own measure of the author before we consider his account of our era’s greatest jurist.

How fashions have changed! Despite a modish dash of race, class, and gender, today’s New Yorker of refined sensibility, if Robin is a representative specimen, presents himself in his book as a conventional socialist, an admirer of the French rather than the American Revolution, and still mooning with nostalgia for that imaginary 1960s “revolution” that Bernie Sanders has dreamt of since his long-ago youth. In Robin’s vision, politics centers on the “power the state will have to involve itself in the affairs of the citizens,” making “rules for a more just and humane economy.” It is a realm of “democratic transformation, where men and women act deliberatively and collectively to alter their estate,” led by the “heroic action of an elite few,” masters of “the arts of persuasion, the mobilization and transformation of popular belief”—though Robin’s evocation of the Robespierres and Lenins of the world is bound to make one wonder just how democratic his vision of the popular will really is. What were the editors of the publication for which he writes a column thinking when they called it Jacobin, after a political elite that wrought its social transformation by removing the heads of those of the wrong class or opinion?

For Robin, capitalism is a system of “overwhelming, anti-democratic constraint” that takes “the great questions of society—justice, equality, freedom, distribution—off the table of public deliberation,” shielding them from “the conscious and collective interference of citizens acting through their government.” In this collectivist vein, he casts a cold eye on Madison’s classic formulation of American constitutionalism in Federalist 10. The Constitution protects life, liberty, and property, Madison writes, and since individual citizens have a boundless variety of talents, ambitions, and energies, the liberty the Constitution safeguards will result in different and unequal outcomes, including economic inequality. The danger in the democratic republic that the Constitution frames, Madison wrote, is that the unpropertied majority could use their voting numbers to expropriate the wealth of the rich few, trampling the Constitution’s protection of property. Such an expropriation is what Madison meant by the tyranny of the majority, and a key goal of the Constitution’s checks and balances is to forestall just that. When Robin holds up Justice Thomas’s citation of Madison’s argument as a mere ploy “to moralize moneymaking, to lend the market a legitimacy it had been denied by New Deal liberalism, to shield money and the market from political critique,” he seems to be looking at the Constitution through the wrong end of a telescope, seeing FDR and the New Deal’s tyranny of the majority, rather than James Madison and the protection of individual liberty, as the nation’s real Founding Father. Of the individual citizen whose liberty the Constitution is meant to shield, we hear nary a word until a third of the way through the book, and then only once or twice thereafter. Everyone is simply an atom dissolved in the mass of race, class, or gender.

The lens through which Robin views Thomas is even more distorting—not surprising, given that he “reject[s] virtually all of Thomas’s views” and moreover believes that the justice, during his confirmation hearings, “lied to the Judiciary Committee when he stated that he never sexually harassed Anita Hill,” an allegation that’s now the stock, and thus increasingly incredible, gambit for opponents of conservative judicial nominees. In the justice’s opinions, what Robin sees, as anyone who spends even an hour or two reading them must see, is Thomas’s striking concern with race, a subject that he raises repeatedly, even in cases seemingly far from the question. Upon this observation, Robin erects a wildly far-fetched account of the justice’s worldview and jurisprudence, one that imperiously sweeps away Thomas’s own careful exposition of his intellectual journey in his speeches and memoir as if he must be incapable of understanding his own mind and heart. But of course, this concern springs not just from Thomas’s personal history but also from the belief, central to his jurisprudence, that it’s precisely on race matters that the Court has made so many fateful wrong turns that need correction. Continue reading

08/25/19

The Education of Clarence Thomas

by Peter Wood

Clarence Thomas graduated cum laude from the College of Holy Cross in Massachusetts in 1971 and received a J.D. from Yale University in 1974. His memoir, My Grandfather’s Son (2007), testifies to a much deeper educational journey—one that began under the determined watch of his maternal grandfather in Jim Crow Savannah and that culminated in his ordeal during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings. In between came his appointments as head of the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

What he learned in those positions was significant, but not transformational. The transformational moment, we learn in Myron Magnet’s new book, Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, came in 1980, “after he read through [Thomas] Sowell’s works, registered as a Republican, and voted for Ronald Reagan.” He was drawn by Reagan’s “promise to end racial social engineering.” Thomas had had a bellyful of that at Yale and had concluded that “blacks would be better off if they were left alone” instead of being conscripted into the utopian schemes of liberal politicians.

Needless to say, this wasn’t an idea he picked up from his teachers at Holy Cross or Yale, though it did owe something to his grandfather. Moreover, it prepared him for the opportunity he had at the EEOC when “he hired as special assistants Ken Masugi and John Marini, students of political philosopher Harry Jaffa.” Masugi and Marini introduced Thomas to texts that deepened his knowledge of the American founding.

Magnet’s book devotes a chapter to “The Making of a Justice,” which rightly reaches its climax with the attack led by Senator Joe Biden that riveted the nation during the October 1991 confirmation hearings. It was, of course, a trial by ordeal. How much vitriol and character assassination can a man stand? What had happened to the civility and decorum of the world’s greatest deliberative body?

Part of what Thomas took from the Anita Hill accusation-fest was a new determination to uphold the real Constitution of the republic, rather than the patchwork of extra-Constitutional shortcuts, “emanations,” inventions, and betrayals that progressives had cobbled together over the years. This haystack of judicial law-making is ferociously defended, and not just by the progressives who built it. Americans have become accustomed to rule by a high Court of unelected judges who can have what amounts to the final say on any issue they choose.

Thomas reached his seat on that Court with a disposition to dispute what most regarded as “settled law”—settled in the sense that the Court had spoken in cases that had become “binding precedents.” How binding a precedent might actually be, however, was always an open question. The Supreme Court now and then overturned previous decisions, though it usually tried to explain this by citing still other precedents.

Asignificant stretch of Magnet’s short book is a chapter—“Who Killed the Constitution?”—that provides deep background on how the U.S. Supreme Court, step by step, shifted from interpreting the Constitution to what we laymen might call making stuff up. No doubt it is more complicated than that. Making stuff up usually involves a lot of dignified chin pulling and circumnavigation of common sense. And making stuff up isn’t some newly discovered human faculty that emerged on Woodrow Wilson’s birthday or when Justice Owen Roberts weighed FDR’s Court-packing plan and decided he liked the extra-Constitutional New Deal just fine. Making stuff up is what powerful, self-interested people always do when they can. Absent a strict division of legislative, executive, and judicial powers and a system of checks and balances, rule by fiat is inevitable.

Magnet takes us back to the post-Civil War era during which the Supreme Court eviscerated the Fourteenth Amendment in its Slaughter-House Cases (1873) and Cruikshank decision (1876). The Slaughter-House Cases stripped Southern blacks of most of the civil rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. It did so by “interpreting” their rights as citizens to be only their rights under federal law, and excluding their rights under state law. The individuals who brought the case lived in New Orleans, which allowed Louisiana to return its black citizens to a position of peonage. In the Cruikshank case the Supreme Court allowed the perpetrators of a racial mass murder (the Colfax Massacre) to walk away scot free because the Court interpreted the Bill of Rights as only guaranteeing that the U.S. Congress wouldn’t abridge those rights. But if Louisiana wished to abridge them, so be it.

Step by step, the Supreme Court created the tools that allowed the South to unwind the Constitutional protections created by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, thus bringing Reconstruction to an end. Magnet doesn’t allow indignation to get in the way of his building out the story of the Court’s transgressions. His prose is mercifully free of the muse of crankdom that dooms so many attempts to explain the errant ways of the Court from the New Deal through the Warren years. A cool head makes this chapter a perfect set-up to explain Thomas’s unusual jurisprudence.

How unusual is underscored by the efforts of the liberal media to paint Thomas as “wacky”—that’s the word Nina Totenberg on NPR used in her report on Thomas entering his twenty-ninth term in fall 2019. She is echoing Yale professor Akhil Reed Amar. A professor of political science at Brooklyn College, Corey Robin, who specializes in explaining to the left what he thinks conservatives are all about, depicts Thomas in his forthcoming The Enigma of Clarence Thomas as a “black nationalist.” University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Eppsdepicts Thomas as a “megalomaniac.” Epps tells Totenberg, “Thomas alone knows the original meaning of these provisions and even Madison who wrote them can be disregarded. Now that takes a level of confidence or megalomania that I find really breathtaking.”

Such caricatures float on Thomas’s unflinching willingness to dissent from both the jurisprudence of let-sleeping-dogs-lie on the “rights” the court has invented in the past variety and also with that of the let’s-venture-where-no-law-has gone-before variety. As for the latter, when Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his gay-marriage opinion (Obergefell, 2015) that the Constitution is “a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning” [emphasis added], he opened the door to “we-the-Supreme-Court” reading whatever it wants into the Constitution. Thomas dissented: “The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our Nation was built … [T]he majority invokes our Constitution in the name of a “liberty” that the Framers would not have recognized, to the detriment of the liberty they sought to protect.”

NPR follows in the tracks of the New York Times, which has for years on end run stories derogating Thomas, often in the spirit of satirizing him. A recent article by Adam Liptak ran under the headline “Precedent, Meet Clarence Thomas. You May Not Get Along.” Thomas has for close to three decades been the target of liberal ire. Most observers back in 1991 generally concluded that Anita Hill perjured herself in her attacks on Thomas, but in the course of time incessant repetition of Hill’s accusations without mention of the evidence that she lied has turned Hill into a liberal monument of truthfulness and Thomas into a sexist scoundrel for those unwilling to consult the historical facts.

Magnet makes brisk work of the false accusations. His real quarry in this book is his chapter, “Originalism in Action,” in which he paces out Thomas’s opinions over the years showing the Justice’s growing readiness to cast precedent aside in favor of the literal meaning of the Constitution. Magnet touches down for instance on a Thomas dissent in 1999 in the case Chicago v. Morales, in which the Court “struck down a democratically enacted city ordinance imposing small fines or short jail terms on criminal street gang members loitering in public places.” The Court decided this was a “vague and arbitrary” restriction on the personal liberties of thugs. In Supreme Court–speak this was a matter of “substantive due process,” but as Thomas saw it, “police power” is meant to maintain order and prevent crime. The Court’s action rested on a precedent, for sure, but an awful one (Papchristou v. City of Jackson, 1972) in which the court rescued some thieves and drug dealers from loitering charges. Thomas will have none of this. His dissent in Morales hit hard at the Court’s willingness to abandon “our most vulnerable citizens” to the depredations of street criminals. And it was one more step towards Thomas’s disenchantment with the Court’s reliance on precedent.

Magnet’s account of how Thomas’s disenchantment matured is a tour-de-force and in some ways a prediction for what lies ahead. Thomas’s intellectual authority is growing not just with the public but with his colleagues on the Court. It is little wonder that he causes such ire among progressives. He threatens the very core of their larger project, which has always depended on judge-made and administrative-agency–made law. In a final chapter, “A Free Man,” Magnet recounts Thomas’s rejection by the Civil Rights establishment and his reciprocating disdain for those who elevate victimhood as their perpetual calling. “A free man” is an apt label. Thomas may be one of the freest men in America, a man free to pursue justice, unencumbered by the ideological straitjackets that others cheerfully squeeze themselves into.

The education of Clarence Thomas is not just the education he received but the education he now gives Americans on what our freedom should look like and how we can rescue it from those who are determined to take it away. What Thomas teaches is the rule of law as our Founders conceived it—laws that we make for ourselves through our representatives, rather than those imposed by our black-robed judicial betters.  


Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.

06/20/19

Justice Thomas’s Credo

The Constitution, not precedent, is the law of the land.
Myron Magnet
June 19, 2019

One of the most striking aspects of Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Gamble v. United States was Clarence Thomas’s eloquent summary of the core precept of his judicial philosophy: that stare decisis—the venerable doctrine that courts should respect precedent—deserves but a minor place in Supreme Court jurisprudence. His 17-page concurrence in a case concerning double jeopardy, really a stand-alone essay, emphasizes that, in America’s system of government, the “Constitution, federal statutes, and treaties are the law.” That’s why justices and other governmental officers take an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”—not to safeguard judicial precedents. “That the Constitution outranks other sources of law is inherent in its nature,” he writes. The job of a Supreme Court justice, therefore, “is modest: We interpret and apply written law to the facts of particular cases.” Continue reading

05/27/19

How John Marshall Made the Supreme Court Supreme


Myron Magnet
Spring 2019

His brains and bonhomie forged a band of Federalist brethren.

Most serious American readers know National Review columnist and National Humanities Medal laureate Richard Brookhiser as the author of a shelf of elegantly crafted biographies of our nation’s Founding Fathers, from George Washington and Alexander Hamilton up to our re-founder, Abraham Lincoln. Those crisp, pleasurable volumes rest on the assumption that these were very great men who created (or re-created) something rare in human history: a self-governing republic whose growing freedom and prosperity validated the vision they strove so hard and sacrificed so much to make real. It’s fitting that the most recent of Brookhiser’s exemplary works is John Marshall: The Man Who Made the Supreme Court, for it was Marshall—a junior member of the Founding Fathers, so to speak—who made the Court a formidable bastion of the nation’s founding governmental principles, shielding them from attacks by demagogically inclined presidents from Jefferson to Jackson, until his death in 1835.

It takes all a biographer’s skills to write Marshall’s life, for he left no diaries and few letters or speeches. One must intuit the man’s character from bits and pieces of his own writings, his weighty but wooden biography of George Washington, his judicial opinions, and his contemporaries’ descriptions of him. From these gleanings, however, like Napoleon’s chef after the Battle of Marengo, Brookhiser concocts a rich and nourishing dish.

Born in backwoods Virginia in 1755, Marshall all his life kept a rural simplicity of manner and dress that once misled a Richmond citizen to think him a porter and ask him to carry a turkey home from the market, which the chief justice cheerfully did, refusing a tip for his efforts. Gregarious, athletic, and full of jokes, Marshall in his thirties was the life of the Quoits Club, a select Richmond group dedicated to weekly bibulous good fellowship and a horseshoe-like game played with metal rings, activities at which Marshall excelled. During one barroom game of inventing rhymes on assigned words, he drew “paradox” and, glancing at a knot of bourbon-drinking Kentuckians, promptly declaimed:

In the Blue Grass region,
A paradox was born.
The corn was full of kernels,
And the colonels full of corn.

“In his youth, he gamed, bet, and drank,” a temperate congressman grumbled; yet in old age, the legislator had to drive uphill in his gig, “while the old chief justice walks.”

Service in Washington’s army during the Revolution left Marshall with veneration for his commander in chief—“the greatest Man on earth,” he thought. Like most of his fellow officers, he came away from the war with the beliefs, born from the bone-chilling, stomach-gnawing privation of icy winter quarters, that became the core principles of Federalism once the Constitution was ratified—including by the Virginia ratifying convention, where Marshall played a key role. For its own preservation, the United States needed to be a real union, not a confederation of states, the Federalists held, with a central government powerful enough to fight a war and fund it, without inflicting superfluous suffering on its soldiers.
Continue reading

05/19/19

C-SPAN Book Talk

Manhattan Institute Book Forum | May 8 2019, New York City

 

05/17/19

Book Looks At Constitution Through Opinions Of Clarence Thomas


Myron Magnet’s latest book, Clarence Thomas and the Lost Constitution, uses the framework of Justice Thomas’ life and opinions to look at an originalist interpretation of the nation’s founding document.

“The Framers gave us something in 1787 and later it was perfected by the Bill of Rights, by the Reconstruction amendments after the Civil War and by the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote,” said Magnet. “This Constitution is as up to date and even as avant-garde 230 years later as it was when it was first written.”

Thomas’ writings stand in contrast to the policy espoused by Woodrow Wilson.

“He was our first professor President,” said Magnet. “He thought that highly educated experts knew better than the American people themselves. He wanted to put in place something other than what the Framers had envisioned. He wanted the Supreme Court sitting as a permanent Constitutional convention, making up the laws as it went along to adjust to modern conditions.”

Thomas’ decisions want to take a clear eye to the document, not spin it one way or the other.

“If you look back over the history of our Constitutionalism, misreadings by Supreme Court justices can go in all directions,” said Magnet. “If Dianne Feinstein and Joe Biden and their ilk believe that the Supreme Court will only twist the Constitution to the left, believe me, for 100 years, it twisted it to the right. What we really want is a Court that doesn’t twist it at all.”

07/22/17

“Let Right Be Done!”

A classic film’s lesson in liberty

July 21, 2017

May I recommend one of my candidates for the Ten Greatest Movies list—The Winslow Boy? What the 1948 British film (not David Mamet’s 1999 remake) has going for it is a brilliant director, Anthony Asquith—who ranks with such luminaries as Carol Reed, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, or Jean Renoir—and a stellar cast, which includes some of the most skilled actors in movie history, from Cedric Hardwicke on down, all at the top of their form. But above all these advantages, the movie’s animating spirit is its script, by Terrance Rattigan and Anatole de Grunwald from Rattigan’s play, which grippingly dramatizes a principle at the very heart of Anglo-Saxon liberty—a principle that today’s America badly needs to relearn.

The Winslow Boy–and his father

The story, set in 1912—when director Asquith’s father, H. H. Asquith, was Britain’s Liberal prime minister, and World War I was brewing—is simple, and it won’t spoil the movie for you if I sketch its outline. Twelve-year-old Ronnie Winslow gets expelled from Osborne, the prestigious boarding school for cadets headed for Royal Navy commissions, for allegedly stealing five shillings. Though the sum is trivial, the alleged breach of the code of officers and gentlemen is not. His father, Arthur, a newly retired Wimbledon bank manager played by Hardwicke, solemnly asks him if he is guilty—twice—and when the boy twice asserts his innocence, his father, who raised him to tell the truth, vows to vindicate the boy’s honor, whatever the cost.It proves immense. In his quest, which lasts until after Ronnie turns 14, Arthur sacrifices his health, much of his savings, and the happiness and future of his solidly respectable and eminently likable upper-middle-class family. He meets obstacles at every point. The school’s commandant tells him that, as he had no doubt of Ronnie’s guilt after hearing the details of the theft, he has no second thoughts about summarily expelling the boy, without any formal procedure or even someone to advise Ronnie or speak in his defense. He won’t reconsider the evidence or say what it was. A visit to the Admiralty Commission to threaten a lawsuit gains Arthur only a haughty declaration that he needn’t bother: a subject of the king can’t sue the king’s representatives, for the law holds that the king can do no wrong.

True enough, his solicitor tells him; but nevertheless Magna Carta, the thirteenth-century charter of English liberties, declares that “no subject of the King may be condemned without a trial,” so perhaps Arthur should ask his MP to denounce the wrong done to Ronnie in Parliament. Good advice: for the MP, seeing a chance to win favorable press as a defender of justice, is glad to oblige. Reporters readily take the bait and make the Winslow case a national cause célèbre.

The uproar catches the interest of Sir Robert Morton, England’s most eminent—and expensive—barrister, masterfully played by Robert Donat as a complex mix of eloquence, cold hauteur, ruthless intelligence, and deep but hidden feeling, a legal version of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. Morton drops in at the Winslows’ house on his way to dinner with a duchess, politely introduces himself, and mercilessly cross-examines Ronnie, until the boy stammers with confusion and his family (along with the audience) wonders if he’s been telling the truth. But after such browbeating, the great man abruptly announces that he’ll take the case, for he thinks Ronnie is innocent. Continue reading