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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America’s Class Divide: Scribes v. Producers

The most comprehensive study of the ideology in the legal profession ever has just been published. It confirms what most people have already intuited: lawyers as a whole lean strongly to the left. Within the profession, a few characteristics predict that a lawyer will be even farther left than the median. Females and government attorneys are even more liberal, and no category is farther to the left than law professors. So much for diversity in legal education.

But what is most interesting about the study was its comparison of the ideology of lawyers with that of other key professions. Academics as a whole are substantially more left-wing than lawyers, and journalists in the print media are even slightly more left-wing than academics. Thus, we now know that there is a shared ideology of what we might call the scribal class – those who seek to alter the world by their use of information and rhetoric.

This scribal class wields enormous political power.

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Judges are Less Extreme than Lawyers (and That’s a Good Thing)


wooden gavel and books

A new study shows that American judges, particularly federal judges, are more conservative than the average lawyer. It contains a lot of interesting information, but its normative conclusion–that this disparity shows “politicization” in the judiciary– is wrong-headed.  Indeed, that claim likely shows more about the politicization of the academia than anything about the judiciary.

The study seems well designed. It uses campaign contributions as a proxy for the political affiliations of lawyers. In this respect, as the authors recognize, it follows a 2004 article of mine, which showed that law faculty at elite law schools contributed to Democrats over Republicans by a margin of about 11-2. And this new study reveals interesting information, as  most easily visualized in this hyperlinked chart. Lawyers are by and large liberal. As one would expect, legal academics and public defenders are more liberal than partners at top law firms, but these partners are liberal as well.  Lawyers from T-14 law schools are more liberal than those from lower ranked schools.  Female lawyers are more liberal than male lawyers. Federal judges are less liberal than lawyers as a whole and federal appellate judges break slightly to the right.

So far, so good. But then the study makes the claim that this difference represents the “politicization” of the judiciary.

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The Social Decline of Lawyers?

I previously posted about the rise of computation and its implications for legal practice, as machines replace some of the functions of lawyers. I recently wrote an essay that focused more on the displacement’s implication for the status of lawyers in politics and in society. As De Tocqueville saw almost two hundred years ago, lawyers were the aristocrats of America’s democratic society. The rule of law, not men, made them paradoxically the key men in the early Republic. But their position is now threatened by the rise of engineers and tech entrepreneurs.

This development may have good effects for society. As I observed:

In the twentieth century, lawyers continued to wield power, but the direction of their influence in economic affairs changed. Since the birth of the modern regulatory state and social democracy, lawyers have had incentives to increase and revise legislative mandates; they became the technocrats of regulation and redistribution. The more a nation intervenes in the free market, the more in compliance costs and transfer payments that lawyers can expect to receive. As a result, lawyers don’t tend to be strong proponents of economic liberty or even of a stable rule of law. Their interest frequently lies in legal complexity and the uncertainty it brings.

The decline of lawyers may therefore prove a boon to the rule of law and to market norms. Computational innovators benefit from capitalism’s process of creative destruction; their new applications transform industry after industry. Their success lies with a stable rule of law and relatively light regulation. True, once successful, innovators become incumbents and may seek to use government to hamstring new entrants. But the dynamism of technological acceleration will make it difficult even for big government to hold back waves of new “disruptions.”

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