Judge Gorsuch Might Be a Liberal Originalist on the Supreme Court

Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale Law School professor and the author of “The Constitution Today: Timeless Lessons for the Issues of Our Era,” argues that not all devotees of “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution and statutes are what are ordinarily called conservatives and that Judge Neil Gorsuch might be a liberal member of this group.[1]

Originalists, the professor says, “believe that faithful constitutional interpreters must build on the solid bedrock of the Constitution’s text, as that text was originally understood when drafted and ratified.” However, he adds, “not all conservatives are originalists, nor are all originalists conservative. Most jurists, most of the time, follow modern judicial precedents rather than pondering first principles of constitutional text and history. Practical considerations also factor into most jurists’ decision making. Originalists are no different in this regard, but they are more apt to dwell on first principles of text and original meaning and to discard precedents violating these first principles.”

A group of “liberal originalist lawyers, the Constitutional Accountability Center, where I serve on the board of directors, has been particularly effective in bringing liberal originalist scholarship to judicial attention. This month, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and four liberal colleagues [in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado.] strengthened rules against racial animus in jury deliberations” in reliance . . . on the Center’s amicus brief and the historical scholarship it showcased” by another Yale Law School professor.

This case demonstrated that “originalists must honor not just the original understanding of words ratified in 1787-88, but also the letter and spirit of language added by later generations of amenders.”

Amar also noted “the extraordinary body of work of Steven G. Calabresi, who co-founded the conservative Federalist Society in the early 1980s and then clerked for Judge Bork and Justice Scalia. As “perhaps America’s pre-eminent conservative originalist,” [he] has shown that the 14th Amendment was plainly intended to apply the Bill of Rights to the states; that women’s equality was a central theme of that amendment, as originally understood; and that originalism in fact supports a right of same-sex marriage.”

Gorsuch, Amar asserts, “is a brainy and principled jurist” and his “embrace of originalism is honorable and admirable” and, if confirmed as seems likely, “may one day [be regarded] . . . as among the best of the century.”

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[1] Amar, What Gorsuch Has in Common with Liberals, N.Y. Times (Mar. 18, 2017).