Originalism and Town of Greece v. Galloway

Professor Michael Ramsey has a very good post on the degree to which Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway is (and is not) an originalist opinion. He concludes that it reflects a kind of original expected applications originalism. I have always had more sympathy for original expected applications originalism than most, and the points in favor of using this methodology made by Professor Ramsey seem persuasive to me in this context. At any rate, take note, my Fall ’14 students in Constitutional Theory! A bit from Prof. Ramsey’s fine post:

It’s not (typically for Kennedy) an exclusively originalist opinion, but this is a strong originalist element. My question: is it the right sort of originalism? Answer: yes and no. Kennedy’s principal contention (following Marsh) is that the people who proposed the First Amendment also authorized sectarian legislative prayer, so the Amendment must permit it.

In academic terms, this is a version of “original expected application” – that is, how did the framers of a provision anticipate it affecting existing practices? It is fashionable in academic circles to look down on original expected applications. Under original meaning originalism, the question is: what did the text mean? It’s not, what did some people at the time think it would mean (or, worse, how did some people at the time apply it in practice once it was enacted)? If that’s right, Kennedy is looking in the wrong place – it shouldn’t matter what people thought would happen to legislative prayer, but rather what the text actually meant for legislative prayer.

I share some of this view, but not all of it. So I have some sympathy for Kennedy’s argument. I agree that what ultimately matters is the text, not what particular people (or even everyone) thought of the text. Further, what some people thought of the text may be a poor indicator, because the people cited may have been outliers, or making self-interested arguments. Expected applications must be treated with caution, and doubly so for views expressed after ratification.

At the same time, though, expected applications can be good evidence of what the text actually meant.  The text does not have a platonic meaning apart from what people at the time understood it to mean. If a very broad consensus at the time of enactment (or shortly after) thought that provision X did not ban activity Y, that is surely strong evidence that the original public meaning of X did not ban activity Y. This seems especially true of a phrase (like establishment of religion) that may have been a term of art at the time but whose meaning has become obscured to modern readers. The enacting generation was much closer to the language and substituting our view for theirs seems problematic as a strategy for finding the text’s meaning in their time.

So I think the result in Greece v. Galloway is probably right, for at least some of the reasons Justice Kennedy states. But the analysis remains incomplete. Ultimately, an originalist analysis should tie the original expected application back to an original public meaning of the text (since it’s the latter that is what was enacted). That is, there should be a conclusion as to what the text means (consistent with legislative prayer being constitutional). The Court’s opinion does not make that connection. It’s core conclusion is, whatever the clause means, it must allow legislative prayer. But this does come close to saying that it’s the application, not the text, that matters.

UPDATE: I forgot to note a short, helpful defense of the use of original expected applications originalism in this paper by Professors John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport.

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