The importance and influence of originalism as a theory of constitutional interpretation cannot be overstated. Originalism demands a response, and it has been uniquely successful in generating responses (whether sanguine or skeptical) from constitutional scholars as well as the broader public. In recent years, originalism has enjoyed renewed prominence in both the courts and the scholarly community. So-called “new originalism” has come on the scene, garnering a few unexpected adherents. And originalism’s influence has certainly increased on the Supreme Court in the last decade. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine an opinion on, for example, the Recess Appointments Clause in the upcoming Noel Canning case that does not discuss originalist methods and reach conclusions consistent with originalist interpretive theory. That prediction could not have been made in previous eras.
The influence of originalist thinking on the interpretation of the Constitution’s religion clauses has been perhaps less powerful than in other areas (Michael McConnell’s work is a notable exception, and there are a few others). In part this is due to complex and difficult disagreements among scholars about the meaning and scope of the Free Exercise Clause (see, for example, the old debate between McConnell and Philip Hamburger, reflected in the dueling opinions by Justices O’Connor and Scalia in City of Boerne v. Flores). In part it is due to the radical expansion of the coverage of the Establishment Clause in Supreme Court caselaw beginning in the 1940s (see Donald Drakeman’s book, among other treatments) well beyond its original meaning. Nevertheless, there is a distinct possibility that originalist analysis will play a prominent role in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause in the upcoming Supreme Court legislative prayer case–at least in some of the opinions.
All of this is just a little background for what looks to be an extremely important new book on originalism by two of the most acute proponents of originalism (specifically, original methods originalism, which the authors usefully compare against the constitutional construction of another new originalist, Larry Solum) writing today: Originalism and the Good Constitution (HUP 2013) by John McGinnis (Northwestern) and Michael Rappaport (University of San Diego). The book is a must-read for anyone interested in constitutional interpretation (even for–especially for–those of us who are not originalists). For some of my own thoughts about originalism in constitutional interpretation, see the second half of this paper. The publisher’s description follows.
Originalism holds that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning at the time it was enacted. In their innovative defense of originalism, John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport maintain that the text of the Constitution should be adhered to by the Supreme Court because it was enacted by supermajorities—both its original enactment under Article VII and subsequent Amendments under Article V. A text approved by supermajorities has special value in a democracy because it has unusually wide support and thus tends to maximize the welfare of the greatest number.
The authors recognize and respond to many possible objections. Does originalism perpetuate the dead hand of the past? How can following the original meaning be justified, given that African Americans and women were excluded from the enactment of the Constitution in 1787 and many of its subsequent Amendments? What is originalism’s place in interpretation of the Constitution, when after two hundred years there is so much non-originalist precedent?
A fascinating counterfactual they pose is this: had the Supreme Court not interpreted the Constitution so freely, perhaps the nation would have resorted to the Article V amendment process more often and with greater effect. Their book will be an important contribution to the literature on originalism, which is now the most prominent theory of constitutional interpretation.