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08/24/2019

Legal Theory Lexicon: Originalism
Michael Ramsey

At Legal Theory Blog, Larry Solum has updated his entry in the "Legal Theory Lexicon" for "Originalism." Here are some excerpts.  From the introduction: 

There are many different theories of constitutional interpretation, but the most controversial and also perhaps the most influential is "originalism."  Originalism is actually a family of constitutional theories, but two ideas are common to almost all versions of originalism.  The first idea is that the meaning of the constitutional text is fixed: the linguistic meaning of the words and phrases does not change over time.  The second idea is that the original meaning of the constitutional text is binding: judges and officials should consider themselves constrained by the text.

On the origins of originalism and the "New Originalism":

No one scholar or judge deserves credit for originalism as a movement in constitutional theory and practice, but in my opinion one of the crucial events in the originalist revival was the publication of Raoul Berger's book, Government by Judiciary in 1977 by Harvard University Press. As you can guess from the title, Berger's book was very critical of the Warren Court (and its aftermath in the 70s). One of the key responses to Berger was the publication of The Misconceived Quest for the Original Understanding by Paul Brest in 1980. Brest's article initiated an intense theoretical debate over the merits of originalism that continues today. The landscape changed again in the late 1980s, when Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that originalists should shift their attention from "the original intentions of the framers" to the "public meaning of the constitutional text" or "original meaning."

... [O]ne last set of developments is particularly important. In the 70s and early 80s, originalism was strongly associated with conservative judicial politics and conservative legal scholars. But in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, this began to change. One of the important moves was the shift from "original intentions" to "original public meaning," but two other developments were key. First, Bruce Ackerman's work on constitutional history suggested the availability of "left originalism" that maintained the commitment to the constitutional will of "We the People" but argued that the constitution included a New Deal constitutional moment that legitimated the legacy of the Warren Court. (Ackerman does not call himself an "originalist," but many of Ackerman's former students do work that is implicitly or explicitly originalist.)  Second, Randy Barnett (the leading figure in libertarian legal theory) embraced originalism in an influential article entitled An Originalism for Nonoriginalists.  The most recent development in this dynamic is Jack Balkin's attempt to reconcile originalism with living constitutionalism.  Balkin's article, "Abortion and Original Meaning" (link provided below) elicited a good deal of commentary and criticism: his recent book, Living Originalism, further develops his take on originalist theory and applies it to a variety of topics.

And on "original public meaning":

The original-meaning version of originalism emphasizes the meaning that the Constitution (or its amendments) would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoptions. How would the Constitution of 1789 have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted? Of course, the same sources that are relevant to original intent are relevant to original meaning. So, for example, the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia may shed light on the question how the Constitution produced by the Convention would have been understood by those who did not participate in the secret deliberations of the drafters. But for original-meaning originalists, other sources become of paramount importance. The ratification debates and Federalist Papers can be supplemented by evidence of ordinary usage and by the constructions placed on the Constitution by the political branches and the states in the early years after its adoption. The turn to original meaning made originalism a stronger theory and vitiated many of the powerful objections that had been made against original-intentions originalism.

This sets the stage for what is sometimes called “the New Originalism”  and also is called “Original Meaning Originalism.”   Whatever the actual origins of this theory, the conventional story identifies Antonin Scalia as having a key role.  As early as 1986, Scalia gave a speech exhorting originalists to “change the label from the Doctrine of Original Intent to the Doctrine of Original Meaning.”   The phrase “original public meaning” seems to have entered into the contemporary theoretical debates in the work of Gary Lawson  with Steven Calabresi as another “early adopter.”   The core idea of the revised theory is that the original meaning of the constitution is the original public meaning of the constitutional text.

Randy Barnett  and Keith Whittington  have played prominent roles in the development of the “New Originalism.”  Both Barnett and Whittington build their theories on a foundation of “original public meaning,” but they extend the moves made by Scalia and Lawson in a variety of interesting ways.  For the purposes of this very brief survey, perhaps their most important move is to embrace the distinction between “constitutional interpretation” understood as the enterprise of discerning the semantic content of the constitution and “constitutional construction,” which we might tentatively define as the activity of further specifying constitutional rules when the original public meaning of the text is vague (or underdeterminate for some other reason).  This distinction explicitly acknowledges what we might call “the fact of constitutional underdeterminacy.”   With this turn, original-meaning originalist explicitly embrace the idea that the original public meaning of the text “runs out” and hence that constitutional interpretation must be supplemented by constitutional construction, the results of which must be guided by something other than the semantic content of the constitutional text. ...