It Depends On What Your Definition of Radical Is

Conn Carroll /

Heritage Senior Legal Fellow and former Barack Obama student Robert Alt weighs in on the just unearthed 2001 Barack Obama “redistribution of wealth” radio interview.

As with most of Obama’s public comments, his remarks in the interview were measured. In discussion of the high court’s liberal heyday under Chief Justice Earl Warren, for example, he said, “The court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and more basic issues of political and economic justice in the society.”

As a former student of Obama’s at the University of Chicago, I’d note that this was rather typical of his teaching style – stating liberal propositions in a descriptive way, while neither acknowledging the radicalism of the underlying premise nor stating whether he agrees with it.

After noting the Supreme Court’s lack of redistributional adventurism, he muses: “To that extent, as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical.”

Sure, the Warren Court invented a right to privacy out of whole cloth (or, if you prefer, out of the penumbral emanations of the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments). Sure, it rewrote criminal law in ways that made it possible for thousands of criminals to walk free thanks to technicalities. But it didn’t engage in wholesale redistribution, so it wasn’t really “radical.”

Obama’s umbrage at those who would “characterize” the Warren Court as radical isn’t terribly surprising. He has previously cited Earl Warren as the model for the kind of justice that he would pick. And he has repeatedly said he wants judges who demonstrate empathy – which, as luck would have it, appears to involve a bit of a redistributional ethic.