Is Originalism the Law?: The Constitution in Exile Problem

In the past, I have discussed the justification for originalism that the original meaning of the Constitution is the law. Under this positivist view, originalism is the law and and therefore one can make a normative argument that the original meaning should be followed. I have expressed skepticism about this argument: my tentative position is that the law allows, within significant limits, both originalism and nonoriginalism.

Steve Sachs has a new paper out that attempts to develop the positivist originalist argument further. In The “Constitution in Exile” as a Problem for Legal Theory, Steve in part responds to my post questioning this positivist argument:

On its face, the jurisprudential objection is quite plausible. It has even persuaded some originalists. Michael Rappaport, for example, straightforwardly defends originalism as a “desirable” reform program, rather than as a consequence of “following the law.” He notes that “people are in jail in the U.S.—lots of them—for violating laws that are inconsistent with the Constitution’s original meaning,” and that “nonoriginalist Supreme Court decisions are enforced without a second thought by most people all the time.” In this context, “[w]hat does it mean to say that the Constitution’s original meaning is the law?” More generally, “[w]hat does it mean for something to be the law, if the legal system is not enforcing it?”

Steve’s paper is excellent and I strongly recommend it. The paper contains all types of interesting insights from which I learned quite a bit. But in the end the paper does not really move me any closer to the view that the original meaning is the law under positivism.

(As an aside, I should note that my position is not, as Steve suggests, merely that originalism should be justified as a desirable reform. For a discussion, see here.)

In much of the paper, Steve is concerned merely to rebut the argument that simply because judges are regularly enforcing nonoriginalist rules means that the law is nonoriginalist. He argues that one can have nonoriginalist rules enforced even though originalism is the law. To illustrate his point, he imagines a hypothetical society where there is a law that says the people may not eat creatures that feel pain. The people in this society believe that lobsters did not feel pain and consequently eat lobsters regularly. As a descriptive matter, one might conclude that eating lobsters was lawful in this society. But suppose it turned out that lobsters do feel pain. In that event, Steve argues, one might conclude that even though the people in the society believe that eating lobsters is lawful, they are mistaken.

This is a powerful example and may very well show that widespread actions that are accepted by a legal system could be unlawful in some wider sense even though they are accepted as lawful. Steve attempts to justify this example based on a more general approach. He argues that under the legal reasoning accepted in the United States, when there is a conflict between higher and lower norms, the higher norm takes precedence. In the prior example, the higher norm is “do not eat creatures that feel pain; the lower norm is “lobsters may be eaten (because they do not feel pain).”

I have a lot of sympathy for this argument (although I am not certain it is correct). But I have two reservations. First, I think it oversimplifies matters to say that the law in that society prohibited the eating of lobsters. The legal system actually allowed the eating of lobsters. The law that led to that result involved a mistake and had the mistake been revealed a different result would have occurred. So in a way the law allowed the eating of lobster and in another way it prohibited it.

Second, but more importantly, Steve imagines that something like this argument would apply to justify originalism. The higher norm would be “follow the original meaning of the Constitution”; the lower norm is “provision X has a meaning” (where X turns out not to be the original meaning). But I believe that the case of originalism is different than the lobster case (as Steve himself recognizes).

In the next week, I plan to discuss this issue in one or two more posts.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. Charles says

    Of course originalism is the law, there is nothing else. There is no point in using the framers’ language, and not the understanding of what they were enacting they attached to it. The const is not a code with definitions, so interpretation of its general phrases are required, in order to keep faithful to what they really mean. All law has preferences and distinctions, but doesn’t all violate the equal protection clause. The epc was largely enacted to attack racism and sexism, not every distinction. Just like we wouldn’t stand for a moment, allowing a judge to re-write a contract or will, instead of interpreting in light of what the parties wanted, the same analogy for the const. This is just common sense, but too many professors and judges don’t want to be limited by common sense application of the const. It would be lawless for courts to make a ruling creating a principle the that the framers had no concept that they were enacting. That’s judicial dictatorship to not follow original understanding.

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