Comparing Traditionalism and Originalism

I have the first of two posts up at the Liberty Law blog comparing originalism and traditionalism in constitutional TP Bannerinterpretation. The first post uses Town of Greece v. Galloway while in the second I’ll talk about the NLRB v. Noel Canning. The point of the posts is not to defend these decisions, but merely to distinguish them as traditionalist in interpretive method. Here’s a bit from the end:

How is [traditionalism] different from originalism? Here things quickly become complicated because of the broad variety of originalist interpretive approaches. Shortly after the decision [in Town of Greece] was issued, Professor Michael Ramsey had an excellent and useful post on the degree to which Kennedy’s opinion was originalist, in which Ramsey concluded that it reflected a species of original expected applications originalism:

It’s not (typically for Kennedy) an exclusively originalist opinion, but there is a strong originalist element….Kennedy’s principal contention (following Marsh) is that the people who proposed the First Amendment also authorized sectarian legislative prayer, so the Amendment must permit it.

In academic terms, this is a version of “original expected application” – that is, how did the framers of a provision anticipate it affecting existing practices? It is fashionable in academic circles to look down on original expected applications. Under original meaning originalism, the question is: what did the text mean? It’s not, what did some people at the time think it would mean (or, worse, how did some people at the time apply it in practice once it was enacted)? If that’s right, Kennedy is looking in the wrong place – it shouldn’t matter what people thought would happen to legislative prayer, but rather what the text actually meant for legislative prayer.

And yet for the traditionalist it should and does matter that many people, including the drafters (but certainly not only they), did not believe there to be any inconsistency between the practice of legislative prayer and the meaning of disestablishment in the First Amendment. It furthermore matters for the traditionalist (as it does not for many originalists) that the practice was widely accepted in the colonial period as well as for long periods after the ratification of the Establishment Clause. That is because the traditionalist is more focused on practices than meanings when it comes to constitutional interpretation. Or perhaps it is better to say that the traditionalist believes that the meaning of text—particularly as to text that is itself abstract—is far better determined and understood by recourse to concrete practices than by recourse to still other abstract principles.

Here there may be some further overlap between traditionalism and those sub-varieties of public meaning originalism that are receptive to discerning meaning from practices and customs. Professors John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport have written favorably about this interpretive approach in this paper. Professor Ramsey puts the point well from the originalist perspective: “If a very broad consensus at the time of enactment (or shortly after) thought that provision X did not ban activity Y, that is surely strong evidence that the original public meaning of X did not ban activity Y.” For the traditionalist, practices (not principles) are not “merely evidence” or “some evidence” or even “strong evidence” of meaning. Meaning is constituted by practices. The endurance of those practices and the degree of their social acceptance—before, during, and after textual ratification—are also constituents of meaning. None of this implies that these are the only constituents. Neither does it imply that new practices cannot be enfolded into existing meanings. That the founders did not know about email or the Internet, for example, does not mean, on the traditionalist view, that the Fourth Amendment cannot apply to those new media today. But practices that were familiar; widespread; continuous before, during and after the founding; and constitutionally unobjectionable offer more than “evidence” of the meaning of the Establishment Clause. For the traditionalist, they are themselves part of that meaning.

“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.

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.

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.

Originalism and Town of Greece v. Galloway

Professor Michael Ramsey has a very good post on the degree to which Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway is (and is not) an originalist opinion. He concludes that it reflects a kind of original expected applications originalism. I have always had more sympathy for original expected applications originalism than most, and the points in favor of using this methodology made by Professor Ramsey seem persuasive to me in this context. At any rate, take note, my Fall ’14 students in Constitutional Theory! A bit from Prof. Ramsey’s fine post:

It’s not (typically for Kennedy) an exclusively originalist opinion, but this is a strong originalist element. My question: is it the right sort of originalism? Answer: yes and no. Kennedy’s principal contention (following Marsh) is that the people who proposed the First Amendment also authorized sectarian legislative prayer, so the Amendment must permit it.

In academic terms, this is a version of “original expected application” – that is, how did the framers of a provision anticipate it affecting existing practices? It is fashionable in academic circles to look down on original expected applications. Under original meaning originalism, the question is: what did the text mean? It’s not, what did some people at the time think it would mean (or, worse, how did some people at the time apply it in practice once it was enacted)? If that’s right, Kennedy is looking in the wrong place – it shouldn’t matter what people thought would happen to legislative prayer, but rather what the text actually meant for legislative prayer.

I share some of this view, but not all of it. So I have some sympathy for Kennedy’s argument. I agree that what ultimately matters is the text, not what particular people (or even everyone) thought of the text. Further, what some people thought of the text may be a poor indicator, because the people cited may have been outliers, or making self-interested arguments. Expected applications must be treated with caution, and doubly so for views expressed after ratification.

At the same time, though, expected applications can be good evidence of what the text actually meant.  The text does not have a platonic meaning apart from what people at the time understood it to mean. If a very broad consensus at the time of enactment (or shortly after) thought that provision X did not ban activity Y, that is surely strong evidence that the original public meaning of X did not ban activity Y. This seems especially true of a phrase (like establishment of religion) that may have been a term of art at the time but whose meaning has become obscured to modern readers. The enacting generation was much closer to the language and substituting our view for theirs seems problematic as a strategy for finding the text’s meaning in their time.

So I think the result in Greece v. Galloway is probably right, for at least some of the reasons Justice Kennedy states. But the analysis remains incomplete. Ultimately, an originalist analysis should tie the original expected application back to an original public meaning of the text (since it’s the latter that is what was enacted). That is, there should be a conclusion as to what the text means (consistent with legislative prayer being constitutional). The Court’s opinion does not make that connection. It’s core conclusion is, whatever the clause means, it must allow legislative prayer. But this does come close to saying that it’s the application, not the text, that matters.

UPDATE: I forgot to note a short, helpful defense of the use of original expected applications originalism in this paper by Professors John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport.

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