The Optimist: Reflections on Justice Scalia

Some thoughts of mine on Justice Scalia at Commonweal. A bit from the end that is connected with our Tradition Project:

His optimism is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his Establishment Clause opinions, which express his appreciation for the traditions of the American accommodation of law and religion, and his hopeful expectation that American people would maintain, cherish, and be sustained by that inheritance. That optimism underlies much of his jurisprudence. In constitutional law, he believed that tradition is itself an independently powerfully reason in the law’s interpretation. That emphasis on American tradition led him to the view (often expressed in dissent) that “acknowledgement of the contribution that religion has made to our Nation’s legal and governmental heritage” is permissible under the Establishment Clause.

In my judgment, he was largely correct about this. Even more, however, Scalia was convinced that the American tradition of public religion—public prayer, for example—was a uniting force of civic fellowship. Hearing a public prayer in a tradition different from one’s own, he argued in his Lee v. Weisman dissent, would not lead to public discord, but to greater harmony, mutual understanding, and even civic “affection.” How old-fashioned this view seems amid today’s cacophony of demands for validation based on identity or interest group.

Yet it is in his free-exercise jurisprudence that Scalia’s optimism in the commonplace American character was tested and stretched to the breaking point. His seminal contribution was Employment Division v. Smith, where the Court held that a neutral law of general application did not implicate the Free Exercise Clause even if the law had the effect of burdening religion. Many critics of Smith (I am one) miss that what may first appear as a hard and parsimonious rule for religious freedom is closely coupled in Scalia’s opinion with a deep faith and optimism that people, acting through their legislatures, would do right by their religious brethren, would be magnanimous and charitable toward them whenever they could be:

Values that are protected against government interference through enshrinement in the Bill of Rights are not thereby banished from the political process. Just as a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to the press by the First Amendment is likely to enact laws that affirmatively foster the dissemination of the printed word, so also a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to religious belief can be expected to be solicitous of that value in its legislation as well.

Scalia was determinedly sanguine in his opinions about American solicitude for religion. Religious liberty and tolerant good will could never be eradicated from the core spirit and innate generosity of the American people. The people might go astray; they might make mistakes. But in the long run and in the main, the best and most secure outcomes for religious freedom will reflect popular negotiations rather than Court-imposed “solutions.”

So sanguine was he that even as late as 2012, Scalia—a deeply faithful and committed Catholic—could obdurately persist in telling John Allen in an interview that “if the bishops want an exception from the law [in this case the contraception mandate in Obamacare], they should try to get it through the democratic process…. Americans are very generous about accommodating religious beliefs.” The Congress that passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 was more pessimistic in its long-term assessment of the character of the American people. Alas, it was probably more accurate as well.

In fact, one may wonder whether Justice Scalia’s faith in the American people in the long run will be rewarded. Certainly he must have had his doubts. Especially toward the end, he must have known and regretted that his “wins” were so “damn few.” So they were, and so, perhaps, they will be. But to Scalia’s great credit, those doubts and regrets never appeared in his written opinions. And over the truly long run, optimism is not so bad a bet.

Comparing Traditionalism and Originalism II

Here’s the second of my two posts on traditionalism and originalism in constitutional interpretation. This post discusses the TP BannerNoel Canning decision, and one of its main points concerns the institutional pluralism (legal, political, social, and cultural) of the traditionalist method. A bit:

First, a quick recapitulation of traditionalism in constitutional interpretation. Traditionalist interpretation is concerned with perpetuating and maintaining longstanding legal practices—not only those of the Supreme Court but also of other legal and political institutions (Congress and the Executive, for example) as well as social and cultural institutions (as in the case of legislative prayer). Especially in the many cases of vague constitutional text, traditionalist interpretation takes these practices not as evidence of meaning but as constituents of meaning.

Traditionalist interpretation consequently values the practices of many different sorts of institutions. It is institutionally pluralist in this way, and certainly not focused exclusively on the Supreme Court. In fact, a traditionalist Supreme Court opinion will be deferential to the constitutional views of the coordinate branches where those views have endured for very long periods of time. It will be interested in maintaining and re-cementing those views. There is therefore a democratic component of traditionalist interpretation, though it is the democratic sensibility of the authority of long-standing practice as the accumulated wisdom of the people over time, not that of present majority inclination.

Like originalist interpretation, traditionalism is historically rather than normatively oriented, but it does not focus single-mindedly on the moment of ratification. Institutional practices before, during, and after ratification are significant. Continuity is the crucial feature. The longer those practices have endured, the less likely the Court will be, in the ordinary case, to upset them—indeed, the less likely that the practices may be to be brought before the Court at all.

Noel Canning concerned the meaning of the Recess Appointments Clause in Article II, Section 2, Clause 3, and in specific whether the phrase “during the recess” authorized the President to make appointments within congressional sessions or only between the formal sessions of Congress. The originalist arguments for the latter interpretation were powerful, but in a 5-4 majority opinion authored by Justice Breyer, the Court concluded that the President may make recess appointments while Congress is in session.

The influence of traditional institutional practice on the Court’s decision was massive. Relying on Chief Justice Marshall’s statement in McCulloch v. Maryland that the “longstanding practice of government” must inform the Court’s role to “say what the law is,” the Court emphasized that “long standing and established practice is a consideration of great weight in a proper interpretation of constitutional provisions.” In this, the Court’s first foray into interpreting Recess Appointments Clause in more than 200 years, “we must hesitate to upset the compromises and working arrangements that the elected branches of government themselves have reached”….

But the particular nature of that “broader interpretation” in Noel Canning is of great interest. What makes a practice long-standing? How long and continuous is long and continuous enough? Which political virtues are supported by the traditionalist method? And how does the longstanding practice or traditionalist approach differ from living constitutionalism?

The Court did not answer any of these questions directly. But it did say that “three quarters of a century of settled practice” in which Presidents had overwhelmingly favored the broader construction and the Senate had largely acquiesced in that construction “is long enough to entitle a practice” to “great” interpretive weight. In truth, three quarters of a century does not seem a particularly long period as the traditionalist measures time, particularly when compared, for example, with the duration of the practice of legislative prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway. Yet what seems to matter is not only temporal duration but also the preponderance or uniformity of the interpretive preference within that span.

It was also critical to the majority’s approach that though the founding-era view was not directly probative of the Court’s broader interpretation of the clause, the Court found it to be consistent with that interpretation. That finding permitted the incorporation of founding-era understandings to support the longstanding practice on which the majority relied (again, this was a point vigorously and acutely disputed by Justice Scalia). Finally, institutional dynamics and historical patterns also figure prominently in the majority opinion. It was the enduring practices of the coordinate political and more directly democratically accountable branches, not those of the Court, that demanded acknowledgment and deference.

As for the differences between traditionalism and living constitutionalism, one of the most significant is that for the former, long-standing and continuous practice fixes meaning. And it fixes it with a durable presumption, refusing to deviate from it unless there are overwhelmingly good reasons for doing so. Living constitutionalism is committed to no such thing. It prizes the evolution of meaning. A practice’s endurance or traditionalism is never a reason to perpetuate it. To the contrary: it is if anything a reason to change it.

I should add that the DC Circuit’s opinion draws a much sharper divide between founding-era practice and subsequent practice. In some ways, this makes the Supreme Court’s opinion even more interesting from a traditionalist perspective: Justice Breyer’s opinion did not acknowledge this division. It worked the difference into a continuity. I suppose one could be cynical about this and say that traditionalist methods are manipulable. But Breyer could not have incorporated the founding period into the tradition if there had been a more marked divergence from later practice (thanks to Adam White for help in thinking through some of this).

Biblical Intratextualism

Those familiar with some of the schools of constitutional interpretation will know what is commonly called the intratextualist or structuralist method of divining meaning. The idea is to understand the meaning of a word or phrase by searching out and comparing like words or phrases in the same document in order to arrive at a unified meaning. There is a kind of horse-sense fundamental principle sitting somewhere beneath the method: words used at different points in the same document ought to mean the same thing throughout the document, and variations on word usage ought to be understood as signifying difference of meaning. The meaning of the words in the document should render the document a coherent whole. The several usages of “necessary” in the Constitution, for example, are useful in teaching the virtues and vices of intratextualism.

But intratextualism is not just for constitutions. It is a more general approach to extracting meaning from text. Here’s an interesting passage from Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity that describes early developments in Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. This is from the chapter on the great Origen of Alexandria (p.62):

Origen was to spend the rest of his life in Caesarea, and his most mature works were written there, including many of his biblical commentaries. He was the first Christian to write scholarly commentaries on books of the Old Testament, such as Genesis and Psalms, as well as on the New Testament, including the Gospel of John and the Epistles of Paul. Two features stand out in his commentaries: a deep respect, even reverence, for the words of the text, and the conviction that a spiritual meaning could be drawn from every passage of the Bible.

Consider his interpretation of the following passage from the book of Deuteronomy, for example: “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17). Origen begins by putting questions to the text. If “rain” is given as a reward for those who keep the commandments, how does one explain that this same rain is given to those who do not keep the commandments, and “the whole world profits from the common rains given by God”? This leads him to propose that the term “rain” can have another sense than water from the heavens, because in this passage it seems to refer to something that is given only to those who walk in God’s statutes and observe the divine law. It signifies something given “only to the saints.”

With the puzzling use of the term “rain” in the passage as a starting point, Origen proceeds to examine the term “rain” elsewhere in the Scriptures and discovers that it is sometimes used in a metaphorical sense. Moses, for example, said, “May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew” (Deuteronomy 32:1-2). In this passage rain is a metaphor for Moses’s words, and hence of the word of God. That is to say, in the Scriptures “rain” can have another meaning than the plain sense.

“It is by obeying the judgments of our predecessors that we are empowered to make judgments of our own.”

At perhaps one click removed from law and religion proper, but still deeply relevant, is Joel Alicea’s superb essay on originalism and “the rule of the dead” (from which I have drawn the title quote) in the latest issue of National Affairs. Alicea’s piece is particularly useful on the necessary connection of obedience to the will of the dead and the concept of written law (and the disconnection between the concept of written law and obedience to the will of the living). A bit more:

By obeying the dead, the living can demand obedience. As Judge Frank Easterbrook once remarked, “Decisions of yesterday’s legislatures…are enforced…because affirming the force of old laws is essential if sitting legislatures are to enjoy the power to make new ones.” That is, “[p]eople accept old contracts and old laws because they know that this is the only way to ensure that promises to them are kept.” We, the living, accept the binding force of laws passed before our time so that our laws will be obeyed, both in our own time and beyond.

This dynamic between the living and the dead not only undergirds written law; it is foundational to a proper conception of popular sovereignty under the Constitution. Indeed, it is at the heart of what Whittington has called the dualist conception of democratic theory. Under this framework, “the people” exist in their sovereign capacity only when they engage in higher lawmaking — the making and amending of the Constitution. This lawmaking is of a higher order, as it sets the rules by which all other laws can be made and sets the limits of what those laws can do. At all other times and for all other lawmaking, ordinary politics is the norm, and in such circumstances, the people do not act as the sovereign — though they retain the power to reassert their sovereignty at any moment through the process of constitutional amendment. This is not to deny, of course, that the people remain the ultimate source of authority in a polity during a time of ordinary politics; it is simply to say that they and their representatives are acting under or subordinate to the rules that the people established in their sovereign capacity.

This conception of popular sovereignty stems from the same kinds of considerations that uphold written law. In the same way that the dead-hand argument is hostile to any form of written law, saying that the people act in their sovereign capacity in everyday politics is hostile to a written constitution. A constitution is meant to guide and limit ordinary politics, and if ordinary politics were the domain of the people acting as sovereign, then every statute would be the equivalent of a constitutional amendment, and the idea of a written constitution would become meaningless.


These philosophical assumptions underlying written law are the essence of originalism. We must submit to the commands of the dead in order to govern ourselves, and in order to submit, we must understand those commands according to their original meaning. It would be farcical to claim that we are being obedient to a rule if we arrogated to ourselves the power to change the meaning of that rule. It would be tantamount to telling past generations: “We will obey your laws — so long as they mean what we say they mean.” The rejection of the dead-hand argument is therefore not just about defending the validity of written law in general; it is about defending originalism’s core philosophical assumptions.

Similarly, we see that the argument over the dead-hand of the past is about far more than the viability of originalism. At stake is the idea of written law, of popular sovereignty, and of society as an intergenerational partnership between the living and the dead.

Aroney on Freedom of Religion as an Associational Right

The latest issue of the University of Queensland Law Journal is devoted entirely to issues of federalism and freedom of religion in Australia.  One article by Professor Nicholas Aroney, Freedom of Religion as an Associational Right, is particularly informative.  You can read the article in its entirety here.

In his article, Professor Aroney argues that the religious freedom clauses of the Australian Constitution (section 116), which were modeled after the American First Amendment, should be interpreted to protect not only individual rights, but also communal or associational rights.  In support of this contention, Professor Aroney provides an impressive textual and historical analysis of section 116.  He further shows how this interpretation is in accord with international law.

According to Professor Aroney, correctly interpreting section 116 is of fundamental importance, because to interpret it as protecting merely individual rights has the potential to severely weaken religious freedom. Here is Professor Aroney (footnotes omitted):

Efforts to impose an individualistic view of human rights … continue to be made by groups such as the Discrimination Law Experts Group, who argue that the rights of religious organisations engaging in ‘public sphere activities’ should simply be trumped by the rights of individuals ‘to be treated in a non-discriminatory way.’ The Public Interest Law Clearing House and the Human Rights Law Resource Centre have argued similarly, maintaining that permanent religious exceptions to antidiscrimination laws facilitate and condone discrimination by protecting ‘traditional social structures and hierarchies’. Although the context is that anti-discrimination laws apply only in certain ‘public’ contexts, the reasoning is not so limited. These arguments are not unlike that of Stephen Macedo, who advocates that modern liberalism must ‘constitute the private realm in its image’ by forcing citizens ‘to observe its limits’ and ‘pursue its aspirations’. Such persons are to be actively coerced, Macedo candidly asserts, ‘to help ensure that freedom is what they want’, even in ‘their most “private beliefs”’.

 The underlying individualism of this line of argument has been made clear by Margaret Thornton, who has argued that although the ICCPR protects the right to exercise freedom of religion ‘in association with others’, this right not only has to be balanced against the competing rights to equal treatment and non-discrimination, but all such rights need to be understood, fundamentally, as the rights of human beings – not of corporations – and so it is a ‘logical fallacy to extrapolate from an individual’s private beliefs to an impersonal for-profit corporation’. Thornton’s argument shows the weakness of religious freedom rights if they are conceptualised in reductively individualistic terms. This is because one would have to show, first, that certain individuals have particular religious convictions that are legally protected and, second, that these same individual rights are being expressed through the religious corporation’s rules or practices. If religious rights are conceptualised as inherently ‘private’ in this sense, it will be that much more difficult to establish that such rights are really being exercised as private rights in various domains of ‘public’ or ‘quasipublic’ life. But on the contrary, as has been seen, international human rights principles, while certainly premised on the rights of the ‘human person’, are not exclusively concerned to protect only individual rights or only private expressions of religious conviction.

Another problem with individualised conceptions of human rights in this domain is that such rights, although originally conceived as rights against the state, can nonetheless ‘double up as rights against everyone’. Accordingly, as Julian Rivers has shown, there are some for whom it is not sufficient that an individual has a right of ‘exit’ from his or her religious community. Rather, there is evidence ‘of a growing assumption that everyone who wishes should be able to join any religious body’ and that ‘membership tests are suspect’. The underlying assumption, in other words, is that ‘the preservation of religious identity on the part of civil society groups needs justification against the individual who does not share that identity’, even though to adopt such an approach ‘is potentially destructive of the identity of [all] non-State collectivities’. For if any individual can decide whether he or she qualifies for membership of an organisation, no organisation will be able to maintain its distinctive identity.

This reductio ad absurdum suggests that a radical individualist conception of religious liberty is simply incompatible with the existence of religious associations and communities as distinguishable groups within a society. Against such a view, William Galston has observed:

 It is not obvious as an empirical matter that civil society organisations within liberal democracies must be organised along liberal democratic lines… A liberal policy guided … by a commitment to moral and political pluralism will be parsimonious in specifying binding public principles and cautious about employing such principles to intervene in the internal affairs of civil associations. It will rather pursue a policy of maximum feasible accommodation, limited only by the core requirements of individual security and civic unity. That there are costs to such a policy cannot reasonably be denied. It will permit internal associational practices (e.g. patriarchal gender relations) of which many disapprove. It will allow many associations to define their membership in ways that may be viewed as restraints on individual liberty … Unless liberty – individual and associational – is to be narrowed dramatically, however, we must accept these costs.

 A reductively individualist conception of religious freedom is obviously opposed to the capacity of such groups to determine their own conditions of membership, but an excessively narrow associational conception may also have this effect, for there are many social groupings and traditional communities, including religions, in which membership does not initially arise by deliberate choice but by birth and circumstance. Whether voluntaristic or otherwise, unless such associations and communities are going to be understood, following Thomas Hobbes, as ‘worms in the entrails’ of the body politic, we need to recognise, as Harold Laski argued, that they are ‘as real, as primary, and self-sufficing as the whole [society]’. This does not mean of course that communal religious rights must always prevail. But it does mean that they ought to be treated with the same respect as the rights of individuals. As such, from a liberal point of view, what is most crucial in order to protect individuals is not the right to join (or remain) within a group, but the right to exit it. On this approach, the question of the legitimacy of a law which regulates a religious association becomes one of determining what conditions, if any, must accompany an effective exit right, understood to include the rights to associate, disassociate or not associate with a particular religious community on terms offered by that community. Alternatively, from a more communitarian point of view, what matters is that a religious group genuinely benefits its members and does not inappropriately interfere with the legitimate interests of those outside the group. These are large questions, of course, which lie beyond the scope of this article, the point of which has been to establish the associational and communal dimensions of religious freedom as a matter of principle.


Smith on “Decisional Originalism”

You should take a look at Steve Smith’s superb piece criticizing original meaning originalism and proposing something that he calls decisional originalism. More and more, I am coming to believe that original expected applications originalism has a lot more going for it than is commonly thought. Opponents as well as advocates (in fact, especially advocates) of original meaning originalism don’t have much time for it. But Steve is on to something important in this short reflection. Note, also, the relevance of the method of common law reasoning for constitutional interpretation in Steve’s presentation of decisional originalism, something that I also agree is regrettably sidelined today:

If original meaning does not avoid the authority and rationality objections that gave rise to originalism, is there some criterion that would better serve the originalists’ purposes?

Maybe. Or at least the foregoing discussion has already suggested a possibility. Constitutional interpretation might attempt to ascertain and follow the original constitutional decision. After all, authority exerts itself, and rationality manifests itself, in decisions. To be sure, once made, those decisions are expressed in words—words that have meanings. We necessarily use the words (among other things, such as the historical context) to try to understand and reconstruct the decisions. Still, if our goal is to respect the constitutional assignment of authority and to facilitate rational decision-making, then we should not care about either the words or their meanings for their own sakes. We pay attention to them, rather, for the purpose of ascertaining and following the enactors’ decisions.

This distinction between meanings and decisions is subtle, but it is not wholly unfamiliar. Back when lawyers and scholars took common law reasoning more seriously than perhaps they do now, even a legal realist like Herman Oliphant could intelligibly contend that what binds in a legal precedent is what the court decided, not what the court said. Stare decisis, not stare dictis. My suggestion is that a similar distinction might be employed in the context of constitutional interpretation. In common law reasoning, to be sure, the distinction may seem more manifest because there is no canonical statement of the decision, anyway. With constitutional provisions (and statutes) there is a canonical wording; but that fact, I think, need not dissolve the distinction between decision, on the one hand, and textual meaning, on the other.

Just how an approach focusing on the original decision would differ from one focusing on original meaning is a complicated question, about which I cannot say much in a short essay….

For now, though, two observations may be suggestive.

There should be no great difficulty in concluding that the Fourth Amendment “search and seizure” provision applies to wiretaps. That sort of invasion of privacy might well be seen as covered by the enactors’ decision even though telephones did not exist in 1789. We might imagine a conversation in which we explain to the Framers: “In the future, it will be possible for officials to invade people’s privacy electronically without physically entering their dwellings. Would your decision apply to that sort of thing?” And we might plausibly suppose that they would reply, “Of course.”

Suppose, however, that someone proposes that a constitutional provision be interpreted to do something we are reasonably confident the enactors did not contemplate and very likely would not have desired. Someone proposes, for example, that the due process clause be used to invalidate restrictions on abortion. Or that the equal protection clause be used to invalidate traditional marriage laws. And we are confident, perhaps, that the enactors of those provisions would have been startled to learn of these proposals, and would have protested, “Are you serious? Our decision had nothing to do with that sort of thing.” If such “interpretations” had been foreseen, the provisions almost surely would have been reworded to avoid the unwanted results, or would not have been enacted at all.

Fallon on Justice Breyer’s Van Orden Concurrence

The latest issue of the Harvard Law Review contains an extensive appreciation of a selection of Justice Breyer’s opinions. I thought to note one essay as particularly well done: Professor Richard Fallon’s discussion of Justice Breyer’s decisive concurrence in Van Orden v. Perry–one of two companion Ten Commandments decisions issued by the Court in 2005. In that concurrence, Justice Breyer decided for a variety of reasons that, he said, defied codification by test or iron rule, that the monument that had stood for many years on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol did not violate the Establishment Clause. Here is Professor Fallon (footnotes omitted):

Justice Breyer’s third ground for distinguishing prior cases, and especially McCreary County, seems to me to cut to the heart of the dilemma that the Supreme Court confronted. Even if the Texas monument’s long history did not dilute its religious message, that history served as a reminder that the Establishment Clause — read against the background of history — cannot, as Justice Breyer put it, “compel the government to purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes of the religious.” From the beginning, religion has been woven in various ways into American public life. Recognition of this heritage does not, of course, point directly to the correct ruling in Van Orden. It does, however, help to identify the tension that Van Orden required the Court to resolve, or at least manage. Although the Supreme Court has frequently articulated a demand that the government must be neutral in matters of religion, neither that demand, nor what Justice Breyer referred to as the “Court’s other tests,” can “readily explain the Establishment Clause’s tolerance, for example, of the prayers that open legislative meetings; certain references to, and invocations of, the Deity in the public words of public officials; the public references to God on coins, decrees, and buildings; or the attention paid to the religious objectives of certain holidays, including Thanksgiving.”

Without purporting to offer a comprehensive resolution to the tension that the Court’s cases exhibit, Justice Breyer’s Van Orden concurrence suggests a narrow prescription that embodies pragmatic good sense. Although modern governments may not initiate novel forms of support for religious institutions and beliefs, the Establishment Clause should not be read to mandate the chiseling out — which in some cases might be quite literal — of all religious symbols and practices that have long formed part of the architecture of American public life, American public buildings, and American public monuments. To read the Clause so stringently would provoke anger at and resentment of the Supreme Court’s perceived hostility to religion far disproportionate to any good that this approach would achieve….

There is more, and it’s well-worth reading. I, too, admire Justice Breyer’s Van Orden concurrence, but while my reasons are similar to Professor Fallon’s, they are not identical. Perhaps the primary point of divergence in our perspectives is that my defense of historical settlements and practices as a guide to interpreting the meaning of the religion clauses does not depend either on judges’ pragmatic calculations about the comparative social divisiveness of ruling this way or that, or on an overarching or master commitment to religious neutrality, but instead on the intrinsic worth of long-standing historical settlements and customs (doctrinal and social) as a method of conciliating the conflicts that attend these controversies:

The past lies in us and is constitutive of who we are, and though history may be epistemically uncertain, logical certitude is hardly the point of a theory of religious liberty. This point serves as the connection to social history. If the doctrinal negotiations of the past are worthy, though imperfect, counselors for the predicaments of the present–if they are that which we know, and their memory is that which we have–then the objects of those negotiations deserve our attention as well. Political communities are not a-temporal or static associations. They are trans-generational enterprises that depend on the transmission of political and social histories….

The past, in sum, is a beacon. It is a consolation, sometimes effective, other times not, against the ravages of conflict, incommensurability, sacrifice, and tragic loss.

The Tragedy of Religious Freedom 123, 144.

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).

Originalist Fusionism

Here’s something not right down the law and religion fairway, but certainly somewhere in the first cut. The success of original meaning in displacing original intent as the basis for originalist jurisprudence is well known. Original meaning is widely thought to avoid some of the methodological difficulties associated with original intention. And several theorists believe that original meaning is both more politically legitimate and truer to the activity of legal interpretation than original intention.

Yet recently, something of an intentionalist revival has come on the scene. Note that the revival is almost always inclusive of original meaning: the claim is not the mirror image of the new originalist claim–i.e., that original meaning should displace original intention completely. Instead, it is that the exclusion of original intention entirely either leaves originalism incomplete or has had some other ill effects on originalism. The new intentionalism therefore could be plausibly described as a fusionist project–bringing together considerations of original meaning and original intent as both relevant.

Exhibit A: Donald Drakeman’s and Joel Alicea’s work on the limits of the new originalism. What happens when originalist materials point to two or more equally persuasive original public meanings?  The authors discuss a case from 1796 — Hylton v. United States — which involved the constitutionality of a federal tax on carriages. The tax was resisted by Hylton, a Virginia businessman, and other Southerners who believed that it was inequitable because of the greater prevalence of carriages in the South. The case pitted Hamilton against Madison (who had argued against the tax’s constitutionality) and the issue was whether this new tax should be characterized as a direct tax or an excise tax, and “what to do when the best evidence of contemporary usage points in two directions.”  The arguments advanced by lawyers for and against the government proceed through all of the accepted new originalist sources — dictionaries, ordinary or customary usage before the framing of the Constitution (of many sorts), resistance to the “foreign Lexicons” of “consolidated” as opposed to “confederated” governments, commentaries, poems, ratification materials, congressional debates, and so on. Hamilton won the day, arguing that Adam Smith’s definition of a tax in The Wealth of Nations “was probably contemplated . . . by [the] Convention.”  The authors note this as an example of original intentions, and they also emphasize that the three opinions in the case all focused to varying degrees on framers’ intentions.  The reason for this focus is best summarized by Justice Paterson: “the natural and common, or technical and appropriate, meaning of the words, duty or excise, is not easy to ascertain.”  And the authors go on to argue that recourse to original intent is a perfectly reasonable move when original meaning yields equally plausible but conflicting understandings.  The authors call it original intent as tiebreaker: “when the meaning must be sought outside the corners of the constitutional text, why not opt for answering the question ‘What were the framers actually trying to accomplish in using this language?’ rather than letting Samuel Johnson . . . or Hans-Georg Gadamer . . . make the final determination?” And it might be quite common that originalist materials would point to two or more plausible meanings of a particular clause. See, for example, the Establishment Clause.

Exhibit B: Steve Smith’s new post at the Liberty Law blog on the shortcomings of the new originalism. Smith focuses on the new originalism’s complete dissociation of original meaning and original expected applications, which he argues has had the effect of depriving originalism of some of its central political virtue. He writes:

At bottom, after all, the basic idea was, and is—or should be—that “We the People” are entitled to govern ourselves. And for that to happen, we need a process in which we can intelligently decide whether or not to enact a constitutional provision on the basis of an understanding of what the provision will and will not do—of what its consequences will be. To be sure, the People can’t reasonably expect to foresee every little contingency and every specific application of our enactments. But if a constitutional provision ends up having far-reaching consequences that its enactors never intended—that they might have found shocking, that if foreseen might have led them not to enact the provision at all—then not only democracy but also basic rationality are thereby betrayed.

We are then being governed, in the name of the Constitution, by something that “We the People” didn’t think we were approving and perhaps never would have approved. Adopting a constitutional provision becomes less like intelligent, rational self-governance and more like throwing darts in the dark: we adopt a constitutional provision, but it’s anybody’s guess what the provision may turn out to mean.

Smith suggests at the end of the piece that it might be good for “some new movement to emerge devoted to the true criterion for constitutional interpretation,” and he refers to an unpublished paper of his dealing with a “maker-meaning nexus.” I haven’t read the piece, but it sounds very much like a kind of originalist fusionism. One might even say that something like original expected applications (drawn from intentionalist sources) could be used as a side-constraint on original meaning. That side-constraint could operate only in cases of ambiguity (a la Alicea/Drakeman) or as a general restraint on it.

I could list other exhibits, and there are other important intentionalist champions out there, probably none more interesting that Richard Ekins (though my tentative sense, subject I hope to reader correction, is that Professor Ekins’s writing has not taken a position on intentionalism in the originalism debates). But I wonder whether originalist fusionism (or originalist fusionisms of various kinds) might be on the way.

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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