Drakeman, “What’s the Point of Originalism?”

A very interesting new piece by Don Drakeman here. One of its interesting features is a recent survey of public attitudes about originalism–three of the key questions concerning (1) how many favor original understanding (to encompass original meaning and original intention) as compared with non-originalist methods of interpretation; (2) of those that do not favor original understanding, how many nevertheless believe that original understanding should be a factor that is considered in constitutional interpretation; and (3) how many prefer original intention as compared with original meaning (the questions are put with greater nuance than I am conveying here).

While the survey is interesting, there are three other contributions that the piece makes that I found pretty neat.

First, the titular question. The idea here is that “the point”–or at least one point–of originalism is to persuade the public of the court’s decisions, and more generally of the court’s legitimacy in rendering those decisions. The point is a purely pragmatic one. But it may be the fundamental point.

Second, the historical claim about the writing of majority opinions. We are accustomed to judicial opinions. Indeed, around this time of year, we are fixated on them, as if the opinions themselves had some sort of independent constitutional power. But they don’t. Opinions are not constitutionally mandated. The Constitution speaks in terms of “the judicial power” and judicial “offices.” But there is no constitutional reason that the court could not exercise its power and fulfill its office simply by rendering judgment. And so it did before the Marshall Court. Drakeman notes that opinion-writing for the court is really a Marshall-era innovation–devised in order to give rhetorical efficacy and (further) legitimacy to the court. Majority opinions are vehicles for the court to exercise its power as an institution (opinion writing generally is a different issue).

Third, I appreciated the idea of the distinction between a theory of constitutional interpretation and a theory of constitutional explication. What Drakeman is doing is explaining why originalism does matter as an approach to giving meaning to the Constitution: it keeps the Supreme Court in business. He is not arguing that originalism is the correct intepretive approach or that it ought to matter (or that the public is right to believe that it matters). Put another way, the paper is a positive account of originalism’s value. I think that sort of account of originalism’s worth might be very appealing, or at least very interesting indeed, from a Catholic perspective.

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