Legal Theory Lexicon

This is a collection of the Legal Theory Lexicon posts from Legal Theory Blog. A new entry appears each week on Sunday. The most recent posts appear on this page. To access older posts use the "Table of Contents" below. (Many of the Legal Theory Lexicon posts have benefitted from comments by Ken Simons of the Boston University School of Law.)

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Legal Theory Lexicon 019: Originalism
    Introduction There are many different theories of constitutional interpretation, but the most controversial and also perhaps the most influential is "originalism"--actually a loosely-knit family of constitutional theories. The idea that courts would look to evidence from the constitutional convention, the ratification debates, The Federalist Papers, and the historical practice shortly after ratification of the Constitution of 1789 (or to equivalent sources for amendments) is an old one. This post provides a very brief introduction to "originalism" that is aimed at law students (especially first-year law students) with an interest in legal theory.
    The Originalist Revival No one scholar or judge can deserves credit for originalism as a movement in constitutional theory and practice, but in my opinion one of the crucial events in the originalist revival was the publication of Raoul Berger's book, Government by Judiciary in 1977 by Harvard University Press. As you can guess from the title, Berger's book was very critical of the Warren court (and its aftermath in the 70s). One of the key responses to Berger was the publication of The Misconceived Quest for the Original Understanding by Paul Brest in 1980. Brest's article initiated an intense theoretical debate over the merits of originalism that continues today. At various points in time, both sides have claimed the upper hand, but at the level of theory, the case for originalism has always been contested.
    Originalism is not an ivory tower theory. It has had a profound influence on the practice of constitutional interpretation and the political contest over the shape of the federal judiciary. President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork (an avowed originalist) was one key moment--with his defeat by the democrats seen as a political rejection of originalism. The current Supreme Court has at least three members who seem strongly influenced by originalist constitutional theory--Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
    The final chapter of the originalism debate in legal theory has yet to be written--and perhaps it never will be. But one last set of developments is particularly important. In the 70s and early 80s, originalism was strongly associated with conservative judicial politics and conservative legal scholars. But in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, this began to change. Two developments were key. First, Bruce Ackerman's work on constitutional history suggested the availability of "left originalism" that maintained the commitment to the constitutional will of "We the People" but argued that the constitution included a New Deal constitutional moment that legitimated the legacy of the Warren Court--We the People: Foundations, published in 1991. Second, Randy Barnett (along with Richard Epstein, the leading figure in libertarian legal theory) embraced originalism in an influential article entitled An Originalism for Nonoriginalists. Ackerman and Barnett represent two trends in originalist thinking: (1) the political orientation of originalism has broadened from conservatives to liberals and libertarians, and (2) the theoretical structure of originalism has morphed and diversified from the early emphasis on "the original intentions of the framers." After the publication of Paul Brest's Misconceived Quest one heard talk that originalism was dead as a serious intellectual movement. These days one is more likely to hear pronouncements that "we are all originalists, now."
    Original Intentions Early originalists emphasized something called the original intentions of the framers. Even in the early days, there were disputes about what this phrase meant. Of course, there were debates about whether the framers (a collective body) had any intentions at all. And there were questions about what counted as "intentions," e.g. expectations, plans, hopes, fears, and so forth. But the most important early debate concerned levels of generality. The intentions of the framers of a given constitutional provision can be formulated as abstract and general principles or as particular expectations with respect to various anticipated applications of the provision. Most theorists will assent to this point, which flows naturally from the ordinary usage and conceptual grammar of the concept of intention. The difficulty comes because the different formulations of intention can lead to different results in any given particular case. For example, the intention behind the equal protection clause might be formulated at a relatively high level of generality--leading to the conclusion that segregation is unconstitutional--or at a very particular level--in which case the fact that the Reconstruction Congress segregated the District of Columbia schools might be thought to support the "separate but equal" principle of Plessy v. Ferguson. Perhaps the most rigorous defender of the original intentions version of originalism has been Richard Kay in a series of very careful articles.
    Yet another challenge to original-intent originalism was posed by Jefferson Powell's famous article, The Original Understanding of Original Intent, published in 1985. Powell argued that the framers themselves did not embrace an original intention theory of constitutional interpretation. Of course, this does not settle the theoretical question. The framers, after all, could have been wrong on this point. But Powell's critique was very powerful for those who insisted that constitutional interpretation must always return to origins. A certain kind of original-intent theory was self-defeating if Powell's historical analysis was correct. Moreover, some of the reasons that Powell identified for the framers' resistance to originalism were quite powerful. Especially important was the idea that "secret intentions" or "hidden agendas" had no legitimate role to play in constitutional meaning. In the end, however, Powell's article actually had the effect of turning originalism in a new direction--from original intention to original meaning.
    Original Meaning The original-meaning version of originalism emphasizes the meaning that the Constitution (or its amendments) would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoptions. How would the Constitution of 1789 have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted? Of course, the same sources that are relevant to original intent are relevant to original meaning. So, for example, the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia may shed light on the question how the Constitution produced by the Convention would have been understood by those who did not participate in the secret deliberations of the drafters. But for original-meaning originalists, other sources become of paramount importance. The ratification debates and Federalist Papers can be supplemented by evidence of ordinary usage and by the constructions placed on the Constitution by the political branches and the states in the early years after its adoption. The turn to original meaning made originalism a stronger theory and vitiated many of the powerful objections that had been made against original-intentions originalism.
    The concept of original meaning originalism in its modern incarnation has been attributed to Justice Scalia, who is reported to have introduced the idea in a series of lectures in the 1980s; his essay, Originalism, The Lesser Evil, published in 1989, focuses on "original understanding" rather than "original intent." The idea has also been traced to a brief mention in Robert Bork's The Tempting of America, but Bork did not develop the idea extensively. Original-meaning originalism was develped more extensively by Justice Scalia in his opening essay in A Matter of Interpretation. Although the distinction between original meaning and original intent can be found in a variety of early contemporary sources including an article by Robert Clinton in 1987, the systematic development of original-meaning originalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Original meaning originalism receives its most comprehensive explication and defense in Randy E. Barnett's new book, Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty--a systematic development of the original meaning approach and critique of the original intention theory.
    Regime Theory Yet another important twist in originalist theory is emphasized by the work of Bruce Ackerman: a twist that I shall call "regime theory." The foundation for regime theory is the simple observation that the Constitution of the United States was adopted in several pieces--the Constitution of 1789 was supplemented by a variety of amendments. And of these amendments, the three reconstruction amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) are of especial importance--because of the significant structural transformation they work in the relationship between the powers of the national government and the powers of the states. Interpreting the whole Constitution requires an understanding of the relationship between the provisions of 1789 and those adopted during Reconstruction. Some regime theorists argue that the interaction between these two constitutional regimes has the implication that provisions adopted in 1789 take on a new meaning and significance after the Reconstruction Amendments were adopted.
    Ackerman's own version of regime theory includes a fascinating and important challenge for originalists of all stripes. Ackerman emphasized the fact that both the Constitution of 1789 and the Reconstruction Amendments were adopted through processes that were extralegal under the legal standards the prevailed at the time. The Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent of all the states for constitutional amendments and for complicated reasons, it seems likely that the Reconstruction Amendments were of dubious legality if strictly judged by the requirements set forth for amendments in Article V. Ackerman's conclusion was that the Constitution derives its legitimacy, not from the legal formalities, but from "We the People," when mobilized in extraordinary periods of constitutional politics. Perhaps the most controversial conclusion that Ackerman reaches is that the New Deal involved another such constitutional moment, in which "We the People" authorized President Roosevelt to act as an extraordinary Tribune, empowered to alter the constitutional framework through a series of transformative appointments. If one accepts this view, then one might begin to ask questions about the "original meaning" of the New Deal--a kind of originalism that would surely not be embraced by the conservative proponents of originalism in the 70s and early 80s.
    Originalism and Precedent Whither originalism? Given the ups and downs of originalism over the past three decades, making long-term predictions seems perilous indeed. But I will make one prediction about the future of originalism. We are already beginning to see originalists coming to grips with the relationship between original meaning and precedent--both in the narrow sense of Supreme Court decisions and the broader sense of the settled practices of the political branches of government and the states. Already, originalists of various stripes are beginning to debate the role of precedent in an originalist constitutional jurisprudence. Given the conferences and papers that are already in the works, I think that I can confidently predict that the debate over originalism and stare decisis will be the next big thing in the roller-coaster ride of originalist constitutional theory.
    Bibliography This very selective bibliography includes some of the articles that have been influential in the ongoing debates over originalism.
    • Bruce Ackerman, We the People: Foundations (Harvard University Press 1991) & We the People: Transformations (Harvard University Press 1998).
    • Randy Barnett, An Originalism for Nonoriginalists, 45 Loyola Law Review 611 (1999) & Restoring the Lost Constitution (Princeton University Press 2004).
    • Raoul Berger, Government by Judicary (Harvard University Press 1977).
    • Robert Bork, The Tempting of America (Vintage 1991).
    • Paul Brest, The Misconceived Quest for the Original Understanding, 60 Boston University Law Review 204 (1980).
    • Robert N. Clinton, Original Understanding, Legal Realism, and the Interpretation of the Constitution, 72 Iowa L. Rev. 1177 (1987).
    • Richard Kay, Adherence to the Original Intentions in Constitutional Adjudication: Three Objections and Responses, 82 Northwestern Univeristy Law Review 226 (1988)
    • Jefferson Powell, The Original Understanding of Original Intent, 98 Harv. L. Rev. 885 (1985).
    • Antonin Scalia, Originalism: The Lesser Evil, 57 U. Cin. L. Rev. 849 (1989)
    • Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation (Princeton University Press 1997)
    • Lawrence Solum, Originalism as Transformative Politics, 63 Tulane Law Review 1599 (1989).
    • Keith E. Whittington, Constitutional Interpretation: Textual Meaning, Original Intent, and Judicial Review (Kansas 1999).