Like to quote Sen. Hubert Humphrey's...


June 26, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SOME PEOPLE like to quote Sen. Hubert Humphrey's anti-quotas remarks on the Senate floor in 1964 to prove that Congress never intended quotas, goals, timetables, etc., in hiring.

Senator Humphrey was the assistant majority leader and the floor manager for the 1964 civil rights bill. But to believe that the fact that he made such statements "proves" the Senate's "legislative intent" is nonsense.

Senators say things all the time in debate -- especially heated debate -- that they don't mean.

In this case, Humphrey was trying to keep wavering conservatives on his side. Southern opponents of any civil rights legislation kept raising issues such as quotas to confuse and divide.

There are two ways to look at Humphrey's statement.

One, he lied. He had to give those conservatives cover. So he said what he knew not to be so. Thus, conservative senators could vote for the bill and tell constituents, "I made Humphrey keep quotas out."

Two, he told the truth as he saw it, but, not being a lawyer, did not realize that the language of the bill would allow judges to fashion remedies to discrimination that were or resembled quotas.

In neither case would his statement establish the "legislative intent" of the bill. He was speaking only for himself.

Seventy-three senators voted for the bill. Not all of them heard his quota remarks. Some who did no doubt thought that he was wrong, but knew if they pointed this out, that would hurt the bill's chances of passage. So they kept quiet. These senators' "intent" was pro-quota.

Then there are the 290 members of the House of Representatives who voted for the bill. Senator Humphrey hardly spoke for them. Or even to them. Many never heard his or any other assertion that no quotas or other form of hiring by the numbers would result from passage of the bill.

Some judges go beyond floor speeches of sponsors of a bill to determine "legislative intent." They read the committee reports on the bill in question.

To say that these reports represent the views and thus the intention of the majorities that passed the bill is also nonsense. Few, if any, members read these things. Not even all the committee members who sign a report know what's in it. The author of the bill may not even be familiar with the report accompanying it. Reports are written by staff.

Most judges know in their hearts that this is so, and more and more of them lately, it seems, are adopting what I like to think of as Dr. Seuss jurisprudence:

A law means what it says and says what it means. You study the language of the law, not the language of the lawmakers, to determine how to interpret it.

Laws are composed of words. Words have specific meanings. All you have to do is look 'em up. It's that simple. Or is it?

Saturday: Justice Scalia's dictionary.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.