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05/11/2017

Mark Pulliam on Originalism, Restraint and Law Professors
Michael Ramsey

At American Greatness, Mark Pulliam, Plain Talk about Law School Rot.  After some general criticisms of legal academics (beginning "The legal academy is a strange place"), some specific criticisms of originalist legal academics:

[F]ew voices in today’s legal academy advocate judicial restraint, even among so-called “originalists.” Although it still holds sway among conservative political scientists such as Georgetown’s George W. Carey (author of In Defense of the Constitution), the once-influential Bork/Graglia position has seemingly—and inexplicably—fallen out of favor in the law schools. I am old enough to remember when constitutional theory could be divided into two camps: originalism (restraint) and non-originalism (activism). Restraint is no longer “cool”; it leaves power in the hands of the detested proles.

Now, in Baskin-Robbins fashion, there are at least 31 different flavors of originalism, some of which—like the libertarian theory of “judicial engagement”—would grant to courts more discretion to review laws than the most extravagant “living Constitution” theories. Federalist Society co-founder and Northwestern University law professor Steven Calabresi has apparently had a mid-life libertarian epiphany and now—purporting to apply originalist techniques—concludes that the Constitution protects same-sex marriage. Creative “originalism” can also be stretched to reach free-market outcomes Ayn Rand would applaud. George Mason University law school professor Michael Greve has archly referred to libertarian scholars who presume to “read the Constitution as a municipal code for Dagny Taggart’s valley.”

It is no coincidence that some self-styled “originalists,” such as libertarian Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett, dismiss Bork and Graglia as “old school” proponents of a view that “used to be the dominant strain in conservative circles,” in “years past.” Barnett crows that Bork and Graglia used to “rule the roost,” but that “Times have changed.” Is judicial restraint really passé? Barnett contends that “as originalism has assumed an increasingly powerful hold on the legal culture … one must either reject judicial restraint, or attempt to redefine it so it is compatible with originalism.” (Barnett has gone so far as to claim that appeals for judicial restraint are a form of conservative “living constitutionalism,” inverting the very terminology that launched the originalism debate!)

The “originalism” Barnett speaks of is not the originalism espoused by Bork or Attorney General Ed Meese. Barnett has in mind a fashionable new variant of originalism that would empower judges to evaluate the necessity and efficacy of laws to determine if they infringe “unenumerated” (that is, unwritten) rights purportedly lurking in the Constitution. Any sound “originalist” conception of the Constitution must accept that judges should confine themselves to enforcing the express provisions of the Constitution. No matter how exotic the theoretical justification, judicial review does not authorize courts to divine invisible rights or serve as Delphic Oracles pronouncing judgment on the wisdom of laws.