The New Originalism: Answering the Questions Nobody Asks?
posted by Bruce Boyden
Originalism is back in the blogs. Michael Dorf posted a brief column on Findlaw, Who Killed the “Living Constitution”?, followed by a comment from Larry Solum, a rejonder from Randy Barnett, a response from Dorf, and another reply from Barnett. (This follows the flurry of activity a couple of weeks ago on the meaning of “natural born citizen” — see Jim Lindgren, Solum, Jack Balkin, and Solum). This debate is over “New Originalism,” and how much New Originalism differs from Old Originalism or from “Living Constitutionalism” (presumed to be the only other choice — more on that in some other post).
Balkin, Barnett, and Solum are all “New Originalists” — originalists who stress, not the original intent of the authors of a particular legal text, which is unrecoverable in many instances, but rather its “original public meaning” — the meaning that a given sentence would have been assigned by its audience at the time it was drafted. Over the past few years, in a book by Barnett, in two articles by Balkin, in numerous blog posts, and in various other places the general contours of New Originalism have been delineated. Broadly, New Originalism looks to original public meaning to the extent that is helpful; if not, then the interpreter of a constitutional provision is free to look elsewhere for meaning, such as the structure of the text, court precedents, or what have you. That latter process, drawing from the work of Keith Whittington, is called “construction,” to differentiate it from “interpretation” of the Constitution, which (the story goes) requires looking only at original public meaning. New Originalism can therefore be thought of as a kind of Chevron two-step analysis for constitutional law: (1) Is there a clear original public meaning? (2) If not, is the proposed interpretation reasonable under other interpretive methods?
Dorf argues that, to the extent the analysis stops at Step One, New Originalism can produce some “odious” results, a remark Barnett takes him to task for. I would modify Dorf’s concern to add that the problem is not so much “odious” results, but bizarre results; results not only out of step with where the law is, but out of step with any plausible account of where it’s going–which is what would distinguish, in my mind, Sweatt v. Painter from a decision finding, for example, that the original public meaning of the letters of marque clause was to permit Congress to require the entire citizenry to wear chicken costumes on Sunday. Sure, that’s ridiculous; but suppose we dug up incontrovertible evidence that that’s what the public would have understood by it (what else could “letters of marque” mean?). Barnett is apparently willing to bite the bullet and say, well, if that’s what the original public meaning was, we’re stuck with it, until the Article V amendment process runs its course. Break out the chicken suits.
But although that debate is philosophically interesting, I don’t think it’s where the real action is, so resolution of that particular criticism of Dorf is not terribly important. Rather, my impression is that Barnett, Balkin, and Solum believe relatively few controversial questions will actually get resolved at Step One. (I should note that Balkin’s Step One, by explicitly incorporating “principles,” can be Step-Two-like. I don’t think that fundamentally changes my analysis.) Rather, most questions will be proceeding to Step Two.
And Dorf’s criticism there is, Step Two is not a heck of a lot different than Living Constitutionalism. Nearly all of the interesting constitutional interpretation issues jump immediately to Step Two–the nonoriginalist part of New Originalism. That is, all of the phrases of the Constitution that produce actual litigation–”equal protection of the laws,” “due process,” “commerce,” “necessary and proper,” “freedom of speech,” “cruel and unusual punishment,” etc.–all are vague, and therefore not susceptible to Step One resolution. Original public meaning can do nothing to resolve any of those disputes.
This, according to New Originalists, is actually a feature of their theory, not a bug. Original public meaning gives us the bedrock on which constitutional interpretation rests; it tells us that when the Constitution says “thirty-five years old,” it can’t be read to allow a president who is only thirty; it tells us that the obligation of the national government to protect states against “domestic violence” does not refer to spousal abuse. The problem is, no one argues those issues. There are no cases in which someone petitions the Supreme Court for a ruling on whether states should get three senators. New Originalism answers the questions no one asks.
That’s actually fine, if New Originalism were meant as a blow in the battles between philosophers of language. Philosophers of language have been struggling for decades to figure out how simple sentences such as “The cat is on the mat” or “Water is wet” come to have the meanings they do (assuming they have any meaning at all). But I think it’s fair to say that the promise of originalism has been far different than that. Rather than a theory of constitutional language, originalism has long been billed as a theory of interpretation–a theory that, when skillfully applied, will give us the answers to the really hard questions in constitutional law: is there a constitutional right to privacy? Why is Brown v. Board of Education rightly decided (or is it)? Is campaign spending free speech? Is it “necessary and proper” to the Commerce power for Congress to regulate home-grown wheat? What level of notice of a proceeding is required by due process?
The originalist part of New Originalism–Step One–does not provide answers to those questions. It only, as far as I can tell, makes us jump through an extra hoop before getting to where the action really is: non-originalist Step Two of the analysis, where courts and other interpreters can look at precedents, structure, history, context, public policy, and other sources of meaning.
If that’s how New Originalism would work in practice, it’s not even a second-best interpretive choice, as Barnett puts it. In most cases, it’s simply an unnecessary hoop before the main action — figuring out what the Constitution means today.