Rappaport on Common Law Constitutionalism

Professor Michael Rappaport has a really neat post about common law rights that are constitutionalized, and how one should interpret such rights. The post is particularly interesting for me because in my constitutional theory seminar, we are in between two classes that consider, respectively, the role of tradition and historical practice in constitutional interpretation, and the relationship between precedent and interpretive theory. But as Professor James Stoner has shown, there are many textual features of the Constitution that use terms rooted in common law understandings. What are the interpretive possibilities in such cases; what happens to a common law right that has been constitutionalized? Rappaport sets out 3 options:

1. Static: When the common law right is constitutionalized, it becomes fully frozen, as if it were written law. To determine the meaning of the right, one looks to the common law in 1789. The existing decisions regarding the common law constitute the full meaning of the right.

2. Dynamic: Although the common law right was written into the Constitution, it did not change its character. Instead, it remains as flexible as a common law right. Under this interpretation, one might see something like the living constitution view in the Constitution.

3. Intermediate: When the common law right was constitutionalized, it changed its character, but it did not become fully frozen as if it were written law. Under this view, one treats the right as a common law right as of the time it was enacted, but does not give it a dynamic effect with changing circumstances.

It is not surprising that Professor Rappaport ends up opting for choice #3, because this choice maps neatly on his general interpretive defense (with Professor John McGinnis) of original methods originalism! See the post for his reasons. What is of special interest to me is the extent to which the Constitution depends upon common law terminology and common law ideas. For this, you really can’t do better than Professor Stoner’s work. But I suspect there is much more to be done in that area. In fact, sometimes I wonder whether anybody has ever reviewed the English experience with the term “establishment of religion” in the centuries before the Constitution’s drafting (surely someone has).

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