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09/16/2021

Eric Segall on Justice Kagan and Living Originalism
Michael Ramsey

At Dorf on Law, Eric Segall: Labels Matter: How Professor Jack Balkin Snookered Justice Kagan and Others to Fuel Faux Originalism.  From the introduction:

In 2007, Professor Jack Balkin of Yale Law School shocked the academic world by arguing that Roe v. Wade could be justified under an "originalist" approach to constitutional interpretation, and that living constitutionalism and originalism were opposite sides of the same coin. Balkin would later expand that article into a book called, of course, "Living Originalism." 

I want to be crystal clear on two points before moving forward. Balkin's descriptive accounts of constitutional law (which rely considerably on social movements) are as sophisticated, interesting, and accurate as any I have ever read. However, his labeling of his theories as "originalism" has not been helpful and has clouded rather than clarified constitutional debates. 

In his article on abortion and original meaning, published several years before Elena Kagan's confirmation hearing in 2010, Balkin wrote the following: "When the text is relatively rule-like...the underlying principles cannot override the textual command.... But where the text is abstract, general or offers a standard, we must look to the principles that underlie the text to make sense of and apply it." 

...

Balkin's "originalist" turn was much discussed, debated, and conferenced at the time inside the legal academy. When the piece came out, Elena Kagan was Dean of Harvard Law School and would continue in that role for a couple more years. I have no personal information that she was aware of Balkin's work, but if she wasn't, that would be quite surprising. 

Here is what Kagan said at her confirmation hearing when asked about originalism (this link is to a video clip):

“Sometimes they laid down very specific rules. Sometimes they laid down broad principles. Either way, we apply what they tried to do. In that way, we are all originalists.”

Kagan's "text" and "principle" approach (Balkin's words in his scholarship) to constitutional interpretation is quite similar to Balkin's theory. Let's give Kagan credit for understanding that allowing judges to use broad principles underlying most of the Constitution's imprecise provisions results in the kind of living constitutionalism that originalists have long said they deplored. Nevertheless, her uttering of that sentence--"In that way, we are all originalists"--unlike Balkin's work, reverberated both inside and outside the legal academy in ways I just can't believe she anticipated (she was testifying in front of the Senate which at the time was controlled by Democrats so she knew she had the confirmation all but locked up). 

Justices Gorsuch and Kavanugh both cited Kagan's statement about originalism in their confirmation hearings to great rhetorical effect. But Kagan's statement has been used (read manipulated) in many places before and after those confirmation hearings, almost always by folks who want to pretend that originalism is our law or should be our law. I don't believe, though I concede it is rank speculation, that Kagan would have made that statement without Balkin's scholarship explicitly tying liberal results like Roe to originalism.

And in conclusion:

As I previously wrote on this blog, far from "we are all originalists," we are in fact all legal realists now, though politicians, pundits, academics, and especially Supreme Court Justices keep trying to hide that fact, as Eric Posner suggested. Kagan's misleading sound bite, along with Balkin's attempts to transform living constitutionalism into originalism, have just made it more difficult to see SCOTUS clearly. 

Labels matter, and here so-called liberal originalism confuses and obfuscates how judges decide constitutional cases, all to the effect of helping the Republican Party. In this sense, as Mark Tushnet likes to say, "law is politics all the way down," at least in the constitutional sphere, where so many of us reside.