“The Traditions of American Constitutional Law”

Here’s a new draft of an article I just posted to SSRN: The Traditions of American Constitutional Law (forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review). Of course, the piece has strong resonances with our Tradition Project here at the Center and is the product of thoughts that have been stimulated by the project over the last few years. But it’s a long time marinating. Comments most welcome on what is still very much a work in progress. Here is the abstract.

“This article identifies a new method of constitutional interpretation: the use of tradition to inform constitutional meaning. It studies what the Supreme Court means by invoking tradition and whether what it means remains constant across the document and over time. The task is worth pursuing inasmuch as traditional interpretation is pervasive, consistent, and recurrent across the Court’s constitutional doctrine. So, too, are criticisms of traditional interpretation. There are also more immediate reasons to study the role of tradition in constitutional interpretation. The Court’s two newest members, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, have indicated that tradition informs their understanding of constitutional meaning. The study of traditional interpretation seems all the more pressing to understand certain possible jurisprudential moves in the Court’s future.

The article concludes that when the Court interprets traditionally, it signals the presumptive influence of political, legal, or cultural practices of substantial duration for informing constitutional meaning. Traditional interpretation is thus constituted of three elements: (1) a focus on practices, rather than principles, as informing constitutional meaning; (2) a practice’s duration, understood as a composite of its age and continuity; and (3) a practice’s presumptive, but defeasible, interpretive influence. Traditional interpretation’s emphasis on practices that are given tangible form in a people’s lived experience suggests that it is preferable to speak about politically, legally, and culturally specific traditions rather than an abstracted concept of tradition. Hence, “the traditions of American constitutional law.” 

The article identifies traditional interpretation as its own method; shows its prevalence and methodological consistency across the domains of constitutional interpretation; isolates and examines its constituent elements, comparing them against other prominent interpretive approaches; and infers and explains the justifications of traditional interpretation from the doctrinal deposit. While there may be some irony about a claim of novelty in an article about tradition, what this article identifies as new is not the invocation of tradition as such, but the isolation of a recurrent and consistent method—traditional interpretation—adopted by the Court across its interpretive work. It aims to bring to light an overlooked and yet frequently used interpretive practice, and to understand its structure, situation, and purpose within the Court’s constitutional doctrine.”

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

The Politics of Federalism

In the oral argument on the Bladensburg Cross case last week, Justice Kavanaugh suggested a resolution to the controversy based on notions of federalism–that local municipalities or states could and should make decisions about issues like state-sponsored religious symbols on their own, without a uniform, general rule imposed by the Supreme Court. Certainly this was the approach to many controversies that currently go under the Establishment Clause banner before 1947. And, indeed, those who oppose such resolutions often argue that they have the effect of locking in place the status quo and are unfair and oppressive to minorities. That is, they have a conservative orientation–in the etymological sense at least. But recent events have shown that federalist politics may be progressive, too. They may be used to resist national policies that are more conservative than particular local or state governments might like, as much of the blue-state resistance to some of President Trump’s policies suggests. So there is reason to wonder whether federalism has any necessary political valence, or whether instead its valences depend upon the regnant national politics.

At any rate, this new book, Conservative Innovators: How States are Challenging Federal Power (University of Chicago Press), by Ben Merriman, adopts a historical view of these matters and recounts periods in which federalism was used by states to pursue policies that were more conservative than those desired at the national level (or, at least, at the presidential level).

“As American politics has become increasingly polarized, gridlock at the federal level has led to a greater reliance on state governments to get things done. But this arrangement depends a great deal on state cooperation, and not all state officials have chosen to cooperate. Some have opted for conflict with the federal government.

Conservative Innovators traces the activity of far-right conservatives in Kansas who have in the past decade used the powers of state-level offices to fight federal regulation on a range of topics from gun control to voting processes to Medicaid. Telling their story, Ben Merriman then expands the scope of the book to look at the tactics used by conservative state governments across the country to resist federal regulations, including coordinated lawsuits by state attorneys general, refusals to accept federal funds and spending mandates, and the creation of programs designed to restrict voting rights. Through this combination of state-initiated lawsuits and new administrative practices, these state officials weakened or halted major parts of the Obama Administration’s healthcare, environmental protection, and immigration agendas and eroded federal voting rights protections. Conservative Innovators argues that American federalism is entering a new, conflict-ridden era that will make state governments more important in American life than they have been at any time in the past century.”