Edwin Meese, the former U.S. attorney general and counselor to President Reagan, is retiring as chairman of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at age 81, after more than a decade in that position and more than 20 years at Heritage. Meese, who has played a significant role in influencing the conservative legal movement, particularly with regard to federal judicial nominations, reflected on his work in an interview with National Journal. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ You created quite a stir when you suggested President Obama could be impeached for his use of executive action to limit firearms. Now that you have seen the White House’s proposals, are you less concerned?
MEESE I think perhaps my remarks were somewhat well-taken by the White House. [Obama] acknowledged in his statement that he had to do some things in the Congress, that he couldn’t act unilaterally. Creating new crimes or limiting the actions of ordinary citizens usually requires legislation by Congress, particularly when you are dealing with a constitutional right.
NJ Do you believe Obama has a more expansive view of executive power than George W. Bush did? Or, for that matter, Ronald Reagan?
MEESE I certainly think he has indicated that by some of the things he has done. He’s shown almost a willingness to disregard the Constitution by ordering departments not to follow the law, or when he has created so-called recess appointment when there is no recess. I think it is fair to say that this is the most lawless administration in recent history.
NJ Many view you as the guiding force behind today’s conservative legal movement. Do you see your legacy that way?
MEESE I don’t know. Presidents do that. Lowly people like me don’t do that. I’ve really followed a pattern initiated by President Reagan even when he was governor of California. He had strong feelings about the constitutional fidelity of judges. I’ve tried to follow those principles. This is now a much more important topic overall in the country, in law schools, in the Senate, in the presidency.
NJ Is the judicial filibuster, or the threat of it, being overused? Are we at a point where we are unable to fill vacancies on the federal bench?
MEESE I don’t think the filibuster has been overused at all. The problem has been the laxity in the White House in sending the nominations up. I think that has been more of a reason for why there are so many judicial vacancies. [Obama’s] nominees have been treated no differently than any other president’s.
NJ It has been suggested for years that conservatives are more likely to place importance on judicial nominees than liberals are. Do you think that’s true?
MEESE I don’t know whether it is or not. I would say Republicans generally have paid more attention to the constitutional aspects of judicial nominations. That’s true. By and large, Republicans are more concerned about following the Constitution and particularly the rights and requirements under the Constitution, because they have a concern about improper [use of] power [by] the federal government.
NJ How would you rate the performance of Chief Justice John Roberts?
MEESE I don’t think I have ever evaluated or rated any of the judges on the Supreme Court. I do think the mistake in the “Obamacare” case was an aberration. He has done a good job.
NJ We seem to be in the midst of a sea change with regard to gay rights and perhaps immigration and climate change. What role do you foresee for the high court in these debates?
MEESE It really depends on whether there is a constitutional issue or not. In some of these cases that are current, there is definitely a constitutional issue. The whole matter of gun control is typically and quintessentially a constitutional issue. In some of the other issues, it’s my belief that these are matters appropriately left to the people directly or through their representatives.
NJ How do you view Reagan’s legacy? Is there anything that people don’t quite understand about his presidency today, anything that has been lost to history?
MEESE No, I don’t think so. He is regarded for his leadership today more than ever. What he did with the economy in the 1980s and the recovery from the recession, particularly with the lack of recovery that we see today from a similar recession, gives credence to both the president’s leadership and to the policies he held firm to in the 1980s. People who have some sense of history realize winning the Cold War was one of the greatest feats by any president—particularly when it didn’t involve major warfare by the armed forces.
This article appears in the Feb. 2, 2013, edition of National Journal as Law and Order.