Questioning Originalists and Textualists’ Interpretations of the U.S. Constitution

According to the Associated Press, “Originalism is a term coined in the 1980s to describe a judicial philosophy focusing on the text of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ intentions in resolving legal disputes.” [1]

This was a subject of the testimony of Judge Amy Coney Barrett at her recent Senate hearing about the confirmation of her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. She  “expounded at length on the tenets of textualism and originalism, approaches made popular by Justice Scalia that privilege plain reading of legal texts and seek to minimize a judge’s own interpretations of statute or the Constitution.” Originalism, she said, “means that I interpret the Constitution as a law, that I interpret its text as text and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it [in 1787-88]. So that meaning doesn’t change over time. And it’s not up to me to update it or infuse my policy views into it.”[2]

Although I did not follow that hearing in detail and although I am not a scholar of that philosophy, several commentaries have suggested important qualifications to such a philosophy. Here is a summary of two of those commentaries.

Professor Jack Rakove[3]

One of those commentaries was by Jack Rakove, the William Robertson Coe professor of history and American studies and a professor of political science emeritus at Stanford University and the author of “Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution,” which received the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in history.

Rakove starts his recent commentary by noting, “debates about originalism and how to perform it have been roiling the legal academy for several decades. Scores and scores of scholarly articles on the subject pour in annually from university law reviews; another baker’s dozen books also address it. And there is no simple way to say how we know what the phrases of the Constitution originally meant.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, Rakove says, “The framers never worried about its future judicial interpretation, nor would they have thought of themselves as ‘originalists.’”

For historians, “How can we determine what the Constitution truly meant except by examining why its clauses were proposed and how they were supported or criticized? The Constitution and its amendments were products of political debates; reconstructing those debates is how one would decipher its ‘original meaning.’” (Emphasis added.)

Lawyers and presumably judges, on the other hand, “assume the words the framers used had settled meanings and that a conscientious reader — an informed public official, a learned jurist or just a responsible citizen — can understand those meanings without knowing anything about the debates that produced the text.”

The above approach by lawyers and judges, however, ignores the fact “that the founding era was a period of intense conceptual change. Some of the key words and terms in our constitutional vocabulary were subject to pounding controversy and reconsideration. One has to engage these debates to understand how Americans were thinking about these issues at the time. For today’s originalists, that complexity is part of the problem. The records of history are often messy, not neat; speakers argue past each other or engage in rhetorical excess; their fears are dated, their expectations of worst consequences exaggerated.”

“Rather than accept these aspects of the historical record, today’s originalists prefer to regard the Constitution as a purely legal text, subject to ordinary rules of construction. Yet the linguistic sources they rely on will not provide the answers they seek. [For example, there “is no adequate dictionary definition of ‘the executive power’ that Article II vests in the president. [For another example, understanding] what the ‘establishment of religion’ invoked in the First Amendment meant to its framers requires examining the complex ways in which the states had supported the existing denominations of a very Protestant America. As Thomas Jefferson explained in his ‘Notes on the State of Virginia,’ the very word ‘constitution’ had multiple meanings that were still evolving precisely because Americans were trying to figure out how to make written constitutions — their greatest innovation — the supreme law of the land.”

Rakove says the “best-known example of ‘public meaning’ originalism, Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion in the major Second Amendment case D.C. v. Heller, is . . . a travesty of historical unreason. Here, the court narrowly held that an individual right of self-defense within one’s domicile was constitutionally protected. Far from being a decision logically derived from the original intentions behind the Second Amendment, Scalia’s opinion in Heller is, ironically, a great tribute to the idea of a ‘living Constitution,’ one whose meaning evolves over time — in this case, recognizing how attached Americans had become to the use of firearms.”

Indeed, although there were “a handful of references [alluding to] an individual right to arms” in the debates surrounding the Second Amendment, “that was manifestly not the issue in dispute. The debate was about the militia, a state-governed institution whose future status was problematic because the Constitution gave Congress broad authority to oversee its ‘organizing, arming, and disciplining.’ No one then would have read the amendment to constrain the ‘internal police’ powers of the states, meaning their broad authority to secure public health and safety.”

As a result, “the practice [of originalism] does not provide the constraints on judicial rulings that its advocates claim.”

Rakove’s earlier and somewhat longer article on this same subject in the Fordham Law Review concludes with the following comment: In “the realm of politics and constitutionalism more generally, events continued to prove disruptive of linguistic stability. Critical terms, like constitution or executive power or establishment of religion or sovereignty, came under sustained pressure, not least because of the inventiveness of American revolutionary politics [in the late 18th century]. Anyone who thinks he [or she] can establish conditions of linguistic fixation without taking that turbulent set of events into account is pursuing a fool’s errand.” (Emphasis added.) [4]

Jamelle Bouie[5]

The other recent commentary came from Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times columnist and a political analyst for CBS News, who cites the above criticism of originalism by Rakove and by “Jonathan Gienapp, a historian of the early American republic at Stanford, [who] charges originalists with building a framework ‘such that no amount of historical empiricism can ever challenge it,’ in which neither ‘the Framers’ thoughts or agendas or the broader political, social, or intellectual contexts of the late eighteenth century’ have any bearing on the so-called original public meaning of the Constitution.”

More importantly, Bouie contends that the Civil War “shattered the constitutional order” and that the “Americans who drafted, fought for and ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments did nothing less than rewrite the Constitution with an eye toward a more free and equal country.” As historian Eric Foner contends, these amendments were a “second founding” establishing a “biracial democracy” as opposed to the “white republic” established by the original Constitution.[6] Indeed, Bouie says, the 13th amendment in addition to banning slavery provided, “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” or [in the words of the Chicago Tribune at the time] seemingly limitless authority to “prevent actions by states, localities, businesses, and private individuals that sought to maintain or restore slavery.” Similarly, the 14th and 15th amendments expanded federal power to defend individual and voting rights.

“To take the Second Founding seriously is to reject a vision that binds us to the Constitution as it was in 1787. It is also to embrace a broader vision of the ‘framing’ of American democracy, one that looks to the reconstruction of the country after its near-destruction [in the Civil War] as much as to its birth and founding.”

Conclusion

I solicit comments identifying any questening of Judge Barrett on these issues and her responses.

==============================

[1] Assoc. Press, A.P. Explains: Originalism: Barrett’s legal philosophy, Wash. Post (Oct. 13, 2020)

[2] Fandos, Barrett, Declining to Detail Legal Views, Says She will Not Be ‘a Pawn’ of Trump, N.Y. Times (Oct. 13, 2020).

[3] Rakove. The framers of the Constitution didn’t worry about ‘originalism,’ Wash. Post (Oct. 16, 2020).

[4] Rakove, Tone Deaf to the Past: More Qualms About Public Meaning Originalism, 84 Fordham L. Rev. 969 (2015). Presumably even more grounds for skepticism about originalism can be found in Rakove’s book on the subject: Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution,”

[5] Bouie, Which Constitution Is Amy Coney Barrett Talking About?, N.Y. Times (Oct. 16, 2020)

[6] Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstructrion Remade the Constitution (W.W. Norton & Co. 2019); Caplan: What Reconstruction-Era Laws Can Teach Our Democracy, N.Y. Times Book Review (Sept. 18, 2019)(review of Roner book).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

One thought on “Questioning Originalists and Textualists’ Interpretations of the U.S. Constitution”

  1. I particularly appreciated reading this post, Duane, for of course, we are all concerned about Amy Coney Barrett and the other originalists already on the court. The comments which you bolded are especially helpful in thinking about this issue. Sadly, it will take years for our country to return to “normal,” and that may never be possible.

    I don’t know if I’ve told you about the paper which Don has been writing; you may be interested in reading it when he finishes (soon). It’s a plea to the board of his alma mater, MIT, to rid themselves of the influence of the Koch brothers (he references both, though David is deceased) and their many affiliates, such as ALEC (the issue reminds me of Frank Norris’ The Octopus which I read at Grinnell). Don’s focus is twofold: the Koch’s assault on science and their assault on democracy. (I warn you, however, that it’s 16 pages; I’m the chief proofreader.) best, nancy b

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