A Focus Group on Originalism

These are the best of times and the worst of times for originalism. On the positive side, originalism has never been so discussed in the legal academy and, in the modern era, never have originalist arguments been taken so seriously on the Supreme Court. On the negative side, originalism has never been so fragmented with so many competing justifications and such fundamental differences in the methods for ascertaining the meaning of particular provisions of the Constitution.  And, as Steve Smith, has written in these pages, some originalists believe that the judiciary has such a large role to play in choosing how to make operational constitutional provisions deemed radically indeterminate that originalism seems no longer to create any restraints on the judiciary—one of its original, and, in Steve’s view, salutary functions.

Some of the current discontents of originalism may be an inevitable consequence of its success.  Academics do not succeed by parroting the old theories, but by minting new ones: the multiplication of justifications and methodologies for originalism is the inevitable result. But this academic economy of theorizing does not mean that originalism has not greatly been greatly enriched from being pushed and pulled by ambitious professors of varying ideologies.  The most salient questions about both the persuasiveness of originalism and its practice are clearer than they were in the days when it functioned as a theory of judicial restraint. And despite the differences among originalists,  originalists of various views are far less likely to talk past one another than were constitutional theorists of the past who began from utterly  incompatible premises.

Over the weekend, I met with group of mostly young  academics to talk about some of the internal debates within originalism.  What I heard would have cheered Steve Smith. Despite the different theories of originalism, there seemed to be a consensus on a first point and a near consensus on a second that combine to provide an anchor for originalism, making it again a restraint on the judiciary, even if that is no longer its justification.

First, while participants disagreed about whether the Constitution had provisions that are irreducibly unclear or vague, there was general agreement that much of what passes for ambiguity and vagueness is a measure of modern ignorance about how the terms would have been understood at the time they were enacted. Much of the best work of originalism today is focused on dispelling our current ignorance, thereby narrowing vagueness and ambiguity.   A participant noted, for instance, that John Stinneford’s work on the Eighth Amendment had shown that the Cruel and Unusual Punishment had a more determinate meaning than that which might appear to a modern reader, because the wold “unusual” was a term infused with legal meaning that meant “contrary to long usage.”

Second, even in cases where genuinely irreducible ambiguity and vagueness may exist, there was general doubt that it was the judiciary’s role to fill in these interstices. Judicial review exists only to enforce the higher law when it actually conflicts with a statute or executive branch action. So long as a statute was within the range of an  irreducibly ambiguous or vague provision, it was not the role of the judiciary to invalidate it. This limitation on the judicial role flowed from the concept of judicial power in Marbury itself as well as the history of judicial review that was a component of that power before the Constitution and immediately after its enactment.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

About the Author

Recent Popular Posts

Related Posts


  1. Steve Smith says

    Thanks for this report, John. I do find the views you report somewhat comforting, and I’m tentatively inclined to agree with them. Only tentatively; no firm conviction. However, I still think some more critical and suspicious attention needs to be given to the generally accepted distinction between “meaning” and “expected applications.” In addition to seeming doubtful in its own right, this distinction seems to me a source of much of the mischief — mischief from my point of view, obviously– reflected in “originalists” like Balkin and Perry.

  2. says

    John, your last paragraph is a very good analysis, and appears as — your genuine summarizing. I like it, I agree w/it, and appreciate your analyses. I would, though, like you to address, and qualify, a few of the other statements that I read here.
    1. Please, name(s) “… constitutional theorists of the past who began from utterly incompatible. premises?
    2. “… an anchor for originalism, making it again a restraint on the judiciary — even if that is no longer its justification.” (Emphases added) The federal judicial “ambiguity and vagueness” and what I call usurpation, has been used by your fellow scholar – as a factor of origionalism’s justification?
    3. “… the best work of originalism today is focused on dispelling our current ignorance, thereby narrowing vagueness and ambiguity.” How does this square w/#2, above?
    Thank you, respectfully, John
    (Facebook, author of The Tribute

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>