We the People: What the Public Thinks About Originalism

The following is a post by Center friend and supporter Don Drakeman.

As part of a lively debate about originalism and same-sex marriage (at the Volokh Conspiracy site between Orin Kerr and Ilya Somin), Larry Solum has suggested that there is “no good empirical data on public beliefs about originalism.”  I can’t add to the substantive debate, but I have some empirical data about what the public believes about originalism.  Readers can decide whether it is good or not.

In 2012, I commissioned a YOUGOV survey of 1000 Americans specifically on the topic of originalism.  Most surveys have simply asked voters to choose between the Constitution’s original meaning and a more modern, living Constitution approach. Over time, the public has generally split about 50-50 on that point, with a majority periodically flipping from  one side to the other.  In my Originalism 2012 Survey, 60% chose the understanding of the Constitution at the time it was originally written, with 40% picking “what the Constitution means in current times.”

But here’s the interesting part. I asked the “current times” respondents what the Supreme Court should do with evidence of the original meaning.”  I expected that most would say that it should be either irrelevant or, or merely historical background.  Yet, only 3% said that the Court should ignore it, 18% opted for it to be used only as historical background, and an impressive 79% said that the Supreme Court should “consider it as one of the various factors that should be considered in making the decision.”  So, all in, over 90% of Americans think that the original meaning is at least relevant to the Supreme Court’s decision, with half or more considering it determinative.

That strikes me is as a pretty powerful reason for us to think hard about what the original meaning really is. Many of the debates among originalists center on exactly where we should be looking for that meaning.  I asked the public that question. Offered a series of possible sources, a majority of the public said “yes” or “maybe” to all of these four possibilities: Dictionary definitions; how average voters at the time of ratification understood it; how hypothetical, well-informed ratifiers would have understood it; and the understanding of the framers.  When asked which of these is the most important in the event of a conflict, 66% picked “what the Constitution’s framers intended it to mean.”

Whether the public’s views are important is an interesting question for debate. (For what it’s worth, I believe that they are.) For today, however, I simply wanted to point out that we do have some empirical data, and it speaks pretty clearly.

Details of the Originalism 2012 Survey (along with why I think it is important) can be found here:http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2448431

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