« Leonid Sirota & Mark Mancini on Interpretation and the Rule of Law
Michael Ramsey
| Main | Anthony Moffa: Constitutional Authority, Common Resources, and the Climate
Michael Ramsey »

03/13/2021

Stephen Sachs on Justice Thomas in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski
Michael Ramsey

At Volokh Conspiracy, Stephen Sachs (Duke): Meanings, Intentions, Original Law.  From the introduction: 

In the Supreme Court's recent standing decision, Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, both sides made originalist arguments. An interesting post by Mike Dorf asks what kind of originalism this was.

To Dorf, neither Justice Thomas, for the majority, nor the Chief Justice, in dissent, really sought the original public meaning of the terms "Cases" or "Controversies." They didn't "consult late 18th century dictionaries, corpuses, and perhaps other sources," to ask "whether a well-informed English speaker in the early Republic would have understood litigation in which the plaintiff sought only nominal damages to be a 'case' or 'controversy.'" Instead, the Court cited the views of people like Justice Story or Lord Holt on whether common-law courts could hear suits for nominal damages. Thus, the Court must have been engaging in "old-school intentions-and-expectations originalism"—"showing that the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution intended and expected the courts to hear cases in which the plaintiff sought only nominal damages."

This iron choice between meanings or intentions leaves out another important possibility, namely the original law. If Article III courts could or couldn't hear nominal-damages suits at the Founding, the same likely remains true today. The history matters, not because we have an affirmative obligation to do as the Founders did, but to the extent the courts lack any new authority to do differently: perhaps nothing has happened to abridge, enlarge, or modify the scope of the judicial power since it was adopted in Article III.

So the reason why Justice Story and Lord Holt seem obviously relevant is that we want to recover what the law was upon Article III's ratification—and Justice Story and Lord Holt, neither framers nor ratifiers, might still know more about this than we do. Article III let the federal courts hear "Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under . . . the Laws of the United States." What we need to know isn't really the meaning of the words "Cases" or "in Law," so much as the scope of the common-law jurisdiction those words would have conferred. If common-law courts in general could hear these sorts of cases at the Founding, it's harder to argue that Article III forbade the federal courts from doing so.

Agreed, though I'm not sure this is different from saying that Article III's text incorporated the ordinary modes of adjudication of the common law courts, which I would describe as its public meaning (see my thoughts on the case and Professor Dorf's reading here).