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Understanding the original purpose and context is key to interpreting the U.S. Constitution, says Emeritus General Authority Seventy

landscape picture of the U.S. Constitution and the scriptures from the perspective of a circular lens

Former lawyer and Emeritus General Authority Seventy Tad R. Callister expressed the dangers of United States justices replacing the values and powers written into the Constitution with their own moral values or current societal norms.

The BYU–Hawaii Prelaw Society hosted Callister for a forum entitled “How to interpret the Constitution: The Living Document Method or Originalism” on Nov. 17.

The living document method


The “Living Document” or “Living Constitution” theory, Callister said, is less a method of interpretation and more of a disguise of legislating one’s moral values.

Callister accompanied his forum with slides of quotes from founding fathers of the United States, justices and experts of the law. One quote Callister shared, by Justice Antonin Scalia, a United States Supreme Court Justice who is now deceased, spelled out the consequences of interpreting the constitution under the living document theory:

“That of course, is the very appeal of non-originalism for the judges: once they are liberated from the original meaning, they are liberated from any other governing principle as well. Nothing constrains their action except perhaps their estimation of how much judicial social engineering the society will tolerate.”

Callister cited thoughts of scholars and justices who expressed worry over the 2015 United States Supreme ruling requiring “all states to grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.”

He did not state his opinion on whether or not he believed the ruling to be morally correct or not but said he disagreed with the logic and argument by which the ruling was decided.

Callister quoted Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, who said: “Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us. Under the Constitution, judges have the power to say what the law is, not what it should be.

“The people who ratified the Constitution authorized courts to exercise ‘neither force nor will’ but merely judgment. The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment...”

Advocating for originalism and truth-seeking


Callister advocated for originalism and implored listeners to go back to the original documents and texts to understand what the founding fathers meant and believed rather than relying on third-party sources to know what to think.

To express this point, he shared a story of when a young family member approached him saying Columbus was an evil man who promoted sex slavery.

Callister said he looked at the document the young boy had read and noticed the article left out two critical sentences. He said he asked the boy if he had read the sentences before and after the one cited, and the boy said no; it wasn’t included in the article.

He then said he told the young boy that if he were to look at the original text, he would see the context shows that Columbus was denouncing those who were involved in sex slavery, but because the line in the article was taken out of context, it seemed Columbus’s sentiment to be the opposite of what was originally meant.

With this example, Callister urged the importance of understanding the original purpose and intended rights and powers given to the judicial branch of government by the Constitution.

Thomas Nebeker, a senior from Porterville, California, majoring in political science, said, “This forum really put into perspective how I may be able to better advocate for truth.

“The cool thing about looking into originalism is that you have to look back into the past for context. Context and searching sources is how we find truth, and the call to action was that we need to look and search for truth.”

For Nebeker, the forum was a push to motivate him and “hopefully … my peers” to “do great things and achieve many things if we are willing to put in the time to find the truth,” he said.

Get involved: Prelaw Society


The BYUH Prelaw Society page states it “welcomes students from all majors who are interested in discovering if a future in the legal field will enable the highest expression of their intellect and interests after graduation.

“… Our student organization is dedicated to bringing students together in camaraderie to explore the legal landscape, embark on the path of legal education, and serve in executive leadership positions.”

Events put on by the Prelaw Society include guest lectures, networking, Law School Admission Test (LSAT) preparation, workshops and more. This semester, for one of the events, the Prelaw Society hosted the Dean of Admissions Tony Grover of BYU in Provo’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, who led a mock law class and conducted interviews with BYUH students.

Legal Studies Certificate


BYUH offers a 15-credit Legal Studies certificate which includes classes covering legal research and writing, international law, as well as business law and ethics, among others. According to a BYUH University Relations article by Kristie Lam, “The certificate gives students an advantage in graduate programs and in the workforce.”

Lam noted one student’s experience, Devyn Zebe Hartmann from Arizona, who secured an internship with a senator in Washingto,n D.C. “The writing skills I gained through earning the Legal Studies Certificate was the best preparation for my new position.

“… The ability to write effectively has proved to be more important than I ever thought it would be, and I am so grateful for the training I received,” said Hartmann, who graduated in legal studies.

Free Admission to Waikato Law


Jennifer Kajiyama Tinkham, adjunct assistant professor for the Faculty of Business & Government, explained BYUH currently has an agreement with Waikato Law School in Hamilton, New Zealand. She said students who graduate and complete a Legal Studies Certificate and wish to attend Waikato Law are offered:

  • Free admission
  • No entrance test
  • Ability to practice anywhere in the Pacific (outside of French Polynesia and Tahiti)
  • Credited with 1 year of courses
  • Competitive advantage for scholarship
  • Academic research opportunities

For more perspectives and insights on Constitutional interpretive theory, check out the link below: https://dlj.law.duke.edu/2017/06/living-constitutional-theory/

Join the Prelaw Society Facebook page to learn more and to attend events in the future: https://www.facebook.com/groups/BYUHPrelawSociety/?fref=nf

For the full BYUH University News article on the Legal Studies Certificate click here:

https://news.byuh.edu/content/legal-studies-prepares-students-careers-law-school