Tag Archives: Originalism


Definitions are important.

For example, I’m perfectly willing to say I believe in God–if God is defined as “the moral impulse.” I really do believe that most people (not Donald Trump, but most people) have an innate sense of fair play (of justice, if you will), and if we dub the moral guidance provided by that sense of justice as “God”– well then, I’m a believer. (If God is a white guy on a throne with a long white beard who watches to see whether I’m naughty or nice, ala Santa, not so much…)

In constitutional argumentation, originalism is a lot like God.

I mentioned in a prior post that I’ve been reading Erwin Chemerinsky’s We the People: a Progressive Reading of the Constitution for the Twenty-First Century. it’s a really great book, and I recommend it highly; it’s accessible, readable, and (seeing as how it’s from Erwin Chemerinsky) erudite.

Chemerinsky doesn’t have much use for originalism as defined by Scalia et al. I particularly enjoyed his reference to an oral argument in a case involving a California law prohibiting sale or rental of violent video games to minors. Scalia was pressing California’s attorney about whether the the law could be reconciled with the “original understanding” of the First Amendment. After a confusing back-and-forth, Justice Alito interrupted, saying “I think what Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games.”

The reason I loved this anecdote is that it is so close to the way I introduce “original intent” in my classes of non-law-school undergraduate students. I ask them what James Madison thought about porn on the Internet. (These days, I’m just happy when the respondent knows who James Madison was…but that’s a subject for a different post.)

Obviously, Madison never contemplated either technology–that of video games or the Internet. But I would argue that’s not the end of the analysis, nor is it reason to declare the irrelevance of originalism properly defined.

James Madison may not have contemplated an Internet (and who knows what porn looked like in his day), but he did have firm convictions about the importance of free expression and the deleterious effects of government censorship. Original intent, properly understood, requires the courts to protect the principle that government ought not be able to decide which ideas may be communicated.

If, as Chemerinsky demonstrates, it is impossible to define original intent as the Scalia faction would do— as reliance on and limited to what was in the minds of the Founders at the time they drafted the Constitution– and if it is equally if not more unsatisfactory to say that the Constitution simply means what nine people in black robes say it means at any particular point in the nation’s history, then the only reasonable definition of originalism is protection of the principles and values that the Founders were intent upon protecting.

The value of free expression. The value of religious liberty. The importance of separating Church from State. The value of individual autonomy (aka privacy), and one’s right to be “secure” in one’s papers and effects. The values of due process and equal protection.

The principles and values that the Founders protected in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are pretty clear, even if their application in many situations is less so. The only approach to Originalism that makes any sense is an approach that protects those values–an approach that serves as an anchor of continuity in a world where “facts on the ground” are always shifting and technology is constantly reshaping the issues with which courts must contend.

Does slapping a GPS device on a suspect’s car require a warrant? Is use of a new technology that lets police see whether you’re growing pot in your basement from across the street a search for purposes of the 4th Amendment? Do Congressional efforts to censor the Internet run afoul of the First Amendment?

What would our quarreling and philosophically differing Founders (there were a lot of them, remember) “intend” about these and hundreds of similar questions?

We can only answer these questions and others like them in a consistent and principled way by considering the limits the Founders placed on government and the values those limits were intended to protect.

It’s the only workable Originalism.



The Gorsuch Nomination

As I have previously written, the most damning argument against Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation has nothing to do with his bona fides, which are impressive. It is the inescapable fact that his elevation to the Supreme Court will be illegitimate–the result of a very dangerous and cynical misuse of political power.

The Republicans’ refusal to afford Merrick Garland a hearing has been widely criticised as blatantly partisan, so I nearly fell off the treadmill yesterday morning during my workout, as I watched an interview with Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham praised Judge Gorsuch and rattled off his qualifications; then he opined–with no hint of irony–that failure to confirm him would be “political” and thus unprincipled.

Unfortunately, those conducting the interview failed to ask the obvious follow-up question: if failure to approve Gorsuch would be “playing politics,” what the hell was failure to even consider Garland?

The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

But what about Judge Gorsuch himself? His willingness–even eagerness–to fill a seat that will inevitably be seen as stolen is understandable; it’s the Supreme Court, after all. He is clearly highly intelligent; his academic background and professional experience are exemplary. His opinions–whether we agree with them or not–are clearly within the broad mainstream of the judiciary.

The two areas that trouble me are his professed version of originalism and his ambiguous  approach to substantive due process.

True “originalism” comes in a number of respectable versions, but over the past couple of decades, the term has become code for “conservative in the mold of Scalia.”  As Judge Posner (himself a conservative jurist) has persuasively noted, Antonin Scalia’s self-described originalism was incoherent and conveniently invoked. I don’t know any legal scholars who do not begin their analyses by looking to the Constitutional text and its historical meaning–and I don’t know any credible legal authority who would agree with a nice man I once debated, who insisted that “free speech” applied only to oral communications, not newspapers, books or other non-spoken transmittals of ideas. (“It says speech.”)

I often introduce the subject of original intent to my classes by asking “So, what did James Madison think about porn on the internet?” Usually, they laugh–and after we acknowledge that James Madison could never have envisioned the Internet, we consider how the Founders’ clear intent to protect the expression and exchange of ideas from government censorship should be applied to “facts on the ground” that those Founders could never have foreseen. In these situations, people of good will–all of whom believe they are honoring the principles the Founders intended to protect–can come to different conclusions about what fidelity to original intent requires.

I’d be very interested to know how Judge Gorsuch defines his originalism.

The Judge’s approach to substantive due process (sometimes called the Constitutional right to privacy) is unclear. Unlike our conversational use of the term, the constitutional right to privacy is shorthand for the individual’s right to self-determination, the doctrine that identifies fundamental individual rights that government cannot infringe without a compelling reason.

As the Court put it in one case, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Substantive due process requires government to respect the right of individuals to hold their own political and religious beliefs, define their own life’s meaning, choose their own life partners and control their own procreation. It defines certain areas of citizens’ lives as “off limits” to government. Our current privacy jurisprudence began when the Court struck down a Connecticut law prohibiting married couples from using contraception; the Court held that such intimate personal decisions were none of the government’s business.

Scalia was a ferocious critic of substantive due process; he had a crabbed, authoritarian view of individual liberty. (In Lawrence v. Texas, his acerbic dissent made clear his belief that government has the authority to outlaw fornication and masturbation.)

Would Judge Gorsuch agree? Will he follow Scalia, or respect existing legal precedents that protect our “intimate” behaviors and relationships from legislative assault?

Assuming Judge Gorsuch is confirmed to the “stolen seat” on the Court, his approach to originalism and substantive due process will be critically important. It would be nice to know his positions on those fundamental issues before the Senate votes.


An Elastic View of Constitutional Responsibility

Okay–This week, it seems appropriate to talk about the late Justice Scalia, the battle over his replacement, and his much touted (albeit misunderstood and selectively applied) “originalism.”

Today, let’s consider where we are in the process for replacing Scalia.

Republicans in the Senate–notably McConnell and Grassley, who heads up the Judiciary Committee–have said they will refuse to participate in the Constitutionally-described process of “advice and consent.” Their argument, apparently, is that because this is an election year, and the President is in the last year of his tenure, he shouldn’t nominate a successor.

Between 1796 and 1988, at least 14 Justices have been confirmed during election years.

According to legal historians, Senate Republicans would have to reach back to the mid-1800s to find an instance in which the Senate blocked a nominee for reasons having nothing to do with the individual who’d been nominated—that is, just to obstruct the sitting President.

As a post from the Brookings Institution put it: the Republicans’ behavior is a repudiation of both the Constitutional separation of powers and the Constitution’s definition of a Presidential term.

And I thought they claimed to be “strict constructionists”!

The bottom line is that there is simply no precedent for the Senate refusing to discharge its constitutional duty to advise and consent, and if I had to guess, I would predict that McConnell et al will back away from that refusal once they recognize the extent of the political risk involved. (Of course, I’ve been wrong before when I have predicted rational behaviors from crazed partisans…)

Tomorrow, a decidedly critical consideration of Scalia’s controversial jurisprudential legacy…..



Who’s An Originalist?

I see where Justice Scalia has been claiming to be the Court’s one true originalist again.

“Originalism” is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot–mostly by people who (unlike Scalia) don’t understand how law works, or how “original intent” actually operates to guide today’s judges.

When I ask students who profess to be originalists to define the term, the answers generally   come down to a desire for constitutional fidelity–an admirable desire and one that I certainly share.  The devil, as usual, is in the details. What, exactly, do we mean by fidelity to the Founder’s original intent?

If originalism meant–as some insist–that courts must read the constitutional text through the eyes of the Founders as those gentlemen saw their world in 1786, the Constitution would have outlived its usefulness many years ago. Such assertions betray a lack of understanding about what constitutions are, and how they function.

Constitutions aren’t statutes prescribing or proscribing specific actions; they are broad frameworks of values, statements of important principles to which statutes, ordinances and government actions must conform.

I sometimes ask my students what James Madison thought about porn on the internet. Those who actually know who James Madison was (a subject I have dealt with elsewhere) will laugh; obviously, whatever Madison may or may not have thought about pornography, he didn’t anticipate the invention of broadcast media, let alone the internet. But Madison (and Jefferson and Hamilton and all the rest) did think about the importance of free expression, about the individual’s right to access information and exchange ideas without fear of government censorship.

Madison and the other Founders intended to privilege and protect the principle of free speech. Fidelity to that original intent requires contemporary judges to protect free expression in situations the Founders could never have imagined. That’s what is meant by legal scholars who talk about the “living constitution”–fidelity to the values protected by our Constitution and Bill of Rights and their consistent application to new “facts on the ground.”

We can agree or disagree about whether a given decision is faithful to the principle or value that the Founders were trying to protect, but we need to recognize that social change necessarily requires the application of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to a constantly evolving civic landscape.

When someone like Justice Scalia pontificates that judges have “the power to say what the law is, not the power to change it,” he is selling snake-oil. Every decision that applies settled legal principles to a new set of facts “changes” law, if only incrementally. That is how the common-law system works, and Scalia is smart enough to know that–and smart enough to know that most Americans don’t. His “originalism” allows him to pretend that his favored ideology is really principle; that he is only a sort of legal automaton looking at the world through the Founders’ eyes.

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton recently said it best:

“Scalia is neither a faint-hearted or stout-hearted originalist. He is a convenient originalist. He’s an originalist when it leads to the result he wants and he’s not an originalist when it doesn’t. His ruling in Raich is a perfect example. And he’s perfectly happy contradicting himself to reach the result he prefers. Just compare his ruling in Raich to his ruling in the challenge to the Affordable Care Act last year. In Raich he agreed that the interstate commerce clause gave Congress the power to regulate the growth of marijuana for personal use — an action that is neither interstate nor commerce — despite that being legal under state law. In the ACA case he argued that the interstate commerce clause did not give Congress the power to regulate the health insurance market, which is, by any definition, a matter of interstate commerce. Ironically, Scalia is exactly what he has for decades accused liberals of being, a results-oriented judge.”

Indeed. And intellectually dishonest about it, to boot.


Tea Party Originalism

David Schultz is a colleague (and co-author of my recent textbook, American Public Service: Constitutional and Ethical Foundations) who has written a timely article for Salon. It’s the sort of article that should be read by the very folks who won’t read it, because it actually takes one of the Tea Party’s avowed purposes—constitutional originalism—seriously.

“With reverence and awe, Michele Bachmann and the Tea Party pay homage to the original Constitution and framers who drafted the document in 1787. The House of Representatives, in a nod to them, began its session this year by reading it. Bachmann even brought Antonin Scalia to a seminar on the Constitution for members of Congress, where the Supreme Court justice instructed members to read the Federalist Papers and follow the framers’ original intent. Moreover, many of the Tea Party’s political positions, such as opposition to President Obama’s healthcare reform program, are rooted in their adherence to the original document.

But what if they actually got their way? If a Tea Party constitutional reading suddenly took sway and we returned to the original document as conceived, what would the American republic look like?”

David begins by pointing to the obvious: the right to vote wasn’t part of the original constitution. Voting rights were largely left to state law, and in 1787 most states limited the franchise to white, male, Protestant property owners, age 21 or older. There was no direct popular voting for president or the United States Senate, and there wasn’t even language that addressed voting for members of the House of Representatives. It took the 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913, to allow for people to vote for their senators (an amendment many Tea Party activists wish to repeal), and the 19th Amendment before women could vote.

As David points out, Michelle Bachmann—self-proclaimed devotee of the Constitution—could neither vote nor serve if we still followed the original document. The Senate wasn’t chosen by popular vote originally, and the President still isn’t.

“Even if we consider the Bill of Rights, which was adopted in 1791, to be part of the original Constitution, there are still many limits on its use. Most importantly, as written, the Bill of Rights limited only national power — not state power. Notice how the First Amendment begins by declaring, “Congress shall make no law. ” … a state could take an owner’s property through eminent domain without compensating him.

Subscribe to an original intent reading of the Constitution and states are free to disregard individual rights, including free speech, property, religion and others. States did just that in the early years of the Republic and into the 20th century before the Supreme Court used the 14th Amendment to apply Bill of Rights provisions to the states. Most recently, the Supreme Court (with Scalia supporting it) used this incorporation tactic to apply the Second Amendment right to bear arms to states. A Tea Party constitutionalist could not have done this. So much for states as protectors of individual freedom.”

Then of course, there are aspects of the original Constitution that even most Tea Party members find inconvenient. In their much-ballyhooed reading of the constitutional text on the floor of the House at the beginning of this session, these fearless defenders of originalism simply omitted that pesky provision about slavery.

It’s hard not to see similarities between the way so many of these “God and Country” zealots read the Constitution and the way they read the bible—very selectively.