« Lawrence Solum: Originalism versus Living Constitutionalism
Michael Ramsey
| Main | Jeremy Telman: Originalism and Second-Order Ipse Dixit Reasoning in Chisholm v. Georgia
Michael Ramsey »

02/02/2019

Robert Natelson: What Is Originalism?
Michael Ramsey

At the Epoch Times, Robert Natelson (Independence Institute) has this essay for a general audience: What Is Originalism? From the introduction:

When President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, it was widely claimed he was appointing “originalists.”

What is an originalist? Although originalists disagree among themselves over some details, they share one core belief: The courts should read the U.S. Constitution in much the same way they read other documents. Judges should not create special exceptions to accommodate politicians or favored groups.

The standard rules for interpreting legal documents—often called “canons of construction”—are centuries old. Some date as far back as the Roman Empire. Originalism is how the Founding Fathers expected the Constitution to be interpreted. If you examine the “Federalist Papers,” you’ll find occasional references to the canons of construction.

Most of the canons are designed to serve one fundamental principle: They help us understand a document the same way the document’s creators understood it.

This basic principle applies to almost all documents. For example, suppose your spouse sends you to the grocery store with a shopping list. The list tells you to buy vegetables. In reading it, you interpret the word “vegetables” as your spouse would have. You don’t “re-interpret” the word to mean “chocolate cake.” You remain faithful to your spouse’s intent, even if you wish he or she had written “chocolate cake” instead.