Like Mark Pulliam, I think a lot about Robert Bork: anyone who teaches either antitrust law or constitutional law should, and I teach both. He was great scholar. In particular, he powerfully challenged the conventional views of living constitutionalism that dominated his time and begin to make the intellectual case for originalism. But it was only the beginning of the case and does not mark the best understanding of originalism today.
Judge Richard Posner has recently dismissed the study of the Constitution of the United States. He said:
I see absolutely no value to a judge of spending decades, years, months, weeks, day, hours, minutes, or seconds studying the Constitution, the history of its enactment, its amendments, and its implementation (across the centuries—well, just a little more than two centuries, and of course less for many of the amendments). Eighteenth-century guys, however smart, could not foresee the culture, technology, etc., of the 21st century. Which means that the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the post–Civil War amendments (including the 14th), do not speak to today.
That was an extraordinary and indeed shocking comment from a federal judge, but sadly his later apology or clarification is insufficient. There Judge Posner expresses sorrow if his previous statement is understood as saying that the Constitution is irrelevant or to be forgotten. But he goes on to say:
What I think is undeniably true is that while the Constitution contains a number of specific provisions—such as the prohibition of titles of nobility (a slap at our former English rulers, who mainly were kings and aristocrats), the requirement that the president be at least 35 years old, and the very detailed provisions regarding congressional authority—many other provisions are quite vague. The vagueness was almost certainly intentional, one reason being the tensions among the 13 states, which required compromise.” This vagueness justifies judges in making a “living Constitution.
But one can only credibly contend that provisions are vague if one had studied the meaning of the Constitution carefully. And as Mike Rappaport and I have argued, on careful examination many provisions that may seem vague or abstract are not so read in their original legal context.
Greg Weiner and Evan Bernick have been conducting an interesting debate in this blog about the virtues of judicial restraint and judicial engagement. Rather than directly confront either position, I would like to raise a methodological point. Doesn’t judicial restraint or judicial engagement need to be rooted in the meaning of the Constitution? In other words, judges’ approach to constitutional interpretation should not be based on policy arguments about how judges should behave but on the original meaning of Constitution itself, just as our interpretation of specific provisions should be fixed by original meaning.
Let me be a little more specific:
In a previous post, I discussed my new paper, The Duty of Clarity. There I show that the original meaning of the Constitution requires a clear violation of its terms before invalidating legislation. But the Constitution also demands that judges use the ample interpretive methods available to clarify the precise meaning of our fundamental law. Both the obligations of clarity and clarification flow from the judicial duty, a duty that is an aspect of the judicial power granted under Article III of the Constitution.
My paper helps resolve the long standing debate about whether judges should defer to the legislature. Judges are empowered to use legal methods to clarify a constitutional provision, and if they can be made clear by these methods, the provision offers a basis to invalidate legislation. But if judges cannot disambiguate or eliminate vagueness, they have no authority to replace the legislature’s judgment with their own.
Since finishing a draft of the paper, I have come across one more powerful piece of evidence for this proposition. It is widely agreed among early Supreme Court justices that this duty of clarity exists and was binding on them. Nevertheless, I had not previously found any instance in which a justice claimed that the duty was the proximate cause of a refusal to hold legislation unconstitutional.
The case in which the duty of clarity appeared to be decisive was United States v. Ravara.
I am less critical of Chief Justice John Roberts than many other conservatives and libertarians. I do disagree with some of his decisions, as I disagree with some decisions by every justice, but there are far more that I agree with than disagree. When there is no clear precedent on the subject, like the recent recess appointment case, he generally goes with the original meaning. And even when there is lot of precedent he often slaloms with the skill of a gold medalist through the precedents to move the law toward the original meaning. See Free Enterprise v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.
One’s evaluation of John Roberts’ performance may depend on how one prioritizes cases. While I disagreed with King v. Burwell, I do not think a contrary outcome would have had real-world effects, as Republicans in Congress would have caved on subsides. In contrast, on the most important constitutional issue of our time—resisting the attempt to tamp down on speech during elections—he has been the leader on the Court. He has applied neutral principles found elsewhere in First Amendment law to permit ordinary citizens to spend as much as they like to get out their views at election time, just like the media. He has given corporations the right to speak at election time, just as they do in other First Amendment contexts. He has rebuffed Justice Stephen Breyer’s dreadful idea that the Court should defer to Congress on such issues, which would turn the First Amendment from a charter of liberty into a delegation to self-interested regulators. The fate of our republic may rest on whether our representatives should be given the power to determine how opinion is shaped and he has been splendidly on the side of constitutional liberty in the most important of the cases about campaigns and speech.
But my main purpose in this post is to praise his treatment of the political question doctrine in Zivotofksy v. Kerry. He took a doctrine that was a mess and turned it into law rooted in the original meaning of the Constitution’s text.
The judiciary should strike down only laws that clearly violate the meaning of Constitution. For this reason, Jack Balkin’s project of Living Originalism is fundamentally flawed at least as to the judiciary, because he believes that judges have substantial discretion to construct the Constitution, even when the semantic meaning is not clear. But it does not follow that the judiciary cannot vigorously discover and enforce the meaning of provisions that might seem indeterminate to a layperson.
Judges have many tools to clarify the meaning of provisions that may seem vague, opaque, or ambiguous. The Constitution was not created ex nihilo but against a background of legal methods that help make legal meanings more precise. To decline to deploy these legal methods is to discard a valuable portion of our traditional science of law. Judges are simultaneously empowered and constrained by these methods.
As I have argued, this view of judicial duty had overwhelming support in the founding era. For instance, James Iredell, one of the first Supreme Court Justices, affirmed that judges have a duty of clarity before invalidating legislation under a constitution, whether state of federal. But he also made clear that judges use “every consideration” in forming a judgment as the meaning of the Constitution, even if this process proved “difficult.”
Justice Roberts provided an example of this process in NFIB v. Sebelius in his interpretation of the Commerce Clause.
In his brilliant book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution Bernard Bailyn wrote: “English law—as authority as legitimizing precedent, as embodied principle, and as the framework of historical understanding—stood side by side with Enlightenment rationalism in the minds of the Revolutionary Generation.” The Constitution itself was a product of those same minds caught between the traditions of the common law and the axioms of the Enlightenment. Understanding the Constitution correctly depends on giving appropriate weight to its common law background.
The judicial duty of clarity along with judicial methods of clarification reflects the common law background of judicial review.
My recent paper, The Duty of Clarity, has substantial implications for an important current controversy in originalist theory—whether the judiciary should engage in construction as opposed to interpretation of constitutional provisions. The judicial duty of clarity suggests that the judiciary cannot engage in construction during the course of judicial review. Construction takes place only when a provision is unclear, and the duty of clarity permits the judiciary to invalidate a provision only when it clearly conflicts with the Constitution.
The controversy over the role of construction and interpretation arises from recent developments in originalist theory. Some theorists, often called the New Originalists, like Randy Barnett, Larry Solum, Jack Balkin, and Keith Whittington, have sought to recast originalism by making a strong distinction between language in the Constitution that is clear and language that is not. For clear language, interpretation governs, and the process of interpretation seeks to discover the semantic meaning of a provision at the time it was enacted. Unclear language, in contrast, creates a so-called Construction Zone, when conventional legal meaning runs out. Within the Construction Zone, the constitutional decision maker must necessarily appeal to materials extraneous to the semantic meaning of the Constitution.