The Constitution’s Creation Is Compatible with Reading It as a Legal Document

Mary Bilder, a distinguished legal historian, has written an oped arguing that the historical context and drafting of the Constitution shows that originalism is not a suitable interpretive approach for its text.  Larry Solum has already asked her five probing questions about her understanding of originalism.

Here I want to focus on her historical claims and in particular her denial that the Constitution should be interpreted as a legal document.  To be sure, not all originalists believe that the Constitution is written in the the language of the law, but Michael Rappaport and I do.  Bilder’s exposition of an originalism that follows the Constitution’s legal meaning begins by attacking a straw man.   She writes: “Originalism reads our Constitution as if it were a modern technical contract written by experienced lawyers or a contemporary statute written by a team of legislators and staffers, parsing and perfecting every word as they wrote it.”

The Constitution is not a contract or, as Chief Justice John Marshall noted, a code, but that does not mean it cannot be a legal document, interpreted with legal rules appropriate to a constitution, as were state constitutions at the time. And Mike and I have recently shown that text of the Constitution—its legal terms and its presupposition of legal interpretive rules– provides powerful evidence that it was written in the language of the law. But even if Bilder does not consider the text relevant historical evidence— which would be a strange position for a legal historian—her arguments from the context of its drafting are weak.

First, a team of lawyers was in fact responsible for perfecting the language of the Constitution.

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More on Construction: A Response to Larry Solum

In my previous post, I raised a question about originalist theories that employ the concept of construction.  I wrote:

The existence of construction raises an important textual question.  If a matter is within the construction zone – and there is no original meaning on the question – then is it part of the Constitution?  Put differently, if a judge employs values that are outside the Constitution to decide a matter, is he deciding the matter based on the Constitution?

And then I continued:

If the Constitution is defined as the original meaning of the words in the document – the standard definition of originalists – then the answer appears to be no: the judge who decides a matter in the construction zone is not deciding the matter based on the Constitution.  And if the judge is not deciding based on the Constitution, then his decision is not enforcing the supreme law of the land (since only the Constitution, federal statutes and federal treaties are supreme law of the land).  Decisions within the construction zone would arguably not be entitled to displace either state law or federal statutes.

In the remainder of the post, I explored some possible ways that those who employ construction might address this issue.

In response, my friend Larry Solum has written a helpful response.  I would recommend that readers take a look at Larry’s post, which is interesting and constructive.  Here I certainly can’t capture all of the subtleties of Larry’s view or post. 

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The Judicial Power Permits only Interpretation, not Construction

Danger sign, warning background

The most import current debate in originalism is between those who believe that judiciary in the course of judicial review can engage only in interpretation and those who believe it can also fill in a  “construction zone” when the semantic meaning of a provision runs out. The latter originalists, such as Randy Barnett, Larry Solum and Jack Balkin, make a strong distinction between clear and unclear language in the Constitution. For clear language, judicial review can find a precise original semantic meaning for a provision and there is no need for the judge to consult anything but the semantic  meaning.  Unclear language, in contrast, creates a construction zone.  Within that zone,  the judge may appeal to materials other than its original meaning in the course of judicial review.

Mike Rappaport in a recent post poses an important question for the latter camp, wondering how they can really be acting as originalists when engaging in construction. Whatever their theoretical arguments about the necessity of construction, how can constructionists be claiming to deciding a matter based on the Constitution? As Mike lucidly puts it:

If the Constitution is defined as the original meaning of the words in the document – the standard definition of originalists – then the answer appears to be no: the judge who decides a matter in the construction zone is not deciding the matter based on the Constitution.  And if the judge is not deciding based on the Constitution, then his decision is not enforcing the supreme law of the land

Mike then notes that one possible response of those who believe in construction is to claim that the “judicial power” gives judges the authority to engage in construction. But in my recent paper, The Duty of Clarity, I show why the Constitution’s understanding of judicial power is inconsistent with construction. There I demonstrate that judicial review was thought to permit judges the authority not to follow a statute only if it were, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, in “irreconcilable variance” with the meaning of the Constitution.

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An Active, But not an Activist, Judiciary

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. 

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The Judiciary Should Interpret, Not Construct, the Constitution

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.

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Competition as a Constitutional Principle

When the Constitution is ambiguous or silent on a particular issue, this Court has often relied on notions of a constitutional plan- the implicit ordering of relationships within the federal system necessary to make the Constitution a workable governing charter and give each provision within that document the full effect intended by the Framers. The tacit postulates yielded by that ordering are as much engrained in the fabric of the document as its express provisions, because, without them, the Constitution is denied force, and often meaning.- William H. Rehnquist

Nevada v. Hall, 440 U.S. 410, 433 (1979) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting).

Today, as threatened in an earlier post, a few more words on competition, the Founders, and the Constitution and its federalism. What warrant do we have to read modern-day competitive federalism theory back into the Constitution?

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