Six years ago, I wrote a post about how the Supreme Court’s website adopted the language of the Living Constitution approach. (I had been expanding on a post by Eugene Volokh.) It was curious that Justices Scalia and Thomas, as well as other fellow travellers of originalism, including the Chief Justice, would allow this language to continue. At the end of the post, I wrote that “it will be interesting to see whether this is changed and if so, how long it will take.” I just checked back to see whether there had been a change, but none has occurred. …
The conversation Richard Reinsch has sparked on constitutional liquidation is less about constitutional meaning than about the ultimate—note “ultimate”—authority to ascertain it. It is true, as Randy Barnett, among others, notes, that liquidation is a longstanding topic in originalist thought. But Reinsch suggests a new avenue, writing that republican politics bien entendu is the ultimate (see above) expositor of constitutional meaning and that this is true generally, not just in ambiguous or indeterminate cases.
In his most recent column, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein criticizes originalism: But originalism is just one of many possible approaches to the Constitution. If it is taken seriously, there is a good argument that it would produce results that most Americans would despise -- and that any Trump nominee should be asked about. For example, originalism could easily lead to the following conclusions: States can ban the purchase and sale of contraceptives. The federal government can discriminate on the basis of race -- for example, by banning African Americans from serving in the armed forces, or by mandating racial segregation in the D.C.…
Recently, I did a podcast interview on Constitutional Amendments and the Presidential Election. The interview, which was conducted by the National Constitutional Center, also featured David Strauss of the University of Chicago. Jeff Rosen, the President of the National Constitution Center and a Professor at George Washington Law School, was the interviewer.
It was an interesting discussion, which focused both on the constitutional amendment process and the impact that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might have on constitutional change if they were elected.
It was fun discussing these issues with David Strauss, because his views are so diametrically the opposite of mine. Many nonoriginalists resist being described as living constitutionalists. Strauss embraces it. He takes the opposite position of mine on a whole range of specific issues, which follows from his more general approach.
Strauss believes two main things about constitutional change. First, he claims that the actual practice of constitutional change occurs through judicial decisions and other governmental actions. In fact, he believes that constitutional amendments are largely irrelevant. Second, he believes that constitutional amendments are not generally a good way generally of changing the Constitution. The way that is actually practiced – where judges follow a common law like system – is better.
The Republicans are already backing off a bit or more from their hastily conceived policy of obstruction. There are loads of precedents for the obstruction, engaged in by both parties. Democratic whining about its deployment against President Obama’s nominee is as cheeky as it is hypocritical. Still, the higher road—the electorally more effective road, too—is perfect respect for constitutional forms.
It is uncommon today for people to argue for the retrieval of the beliefs and institutions of prior periods once they have been set aside. Even those few who do are not usually sanguine about the odds of retrieval. Particularly in intellectual circles, it takes a certain degree of rash temerity to make such arguments—and to risk the label of traditionalism or even reaction—in light of the overwhelming intellectual prejudices in favor of progress.
In republican constitutionalism, the people make a firm precommitment to a particular form of governance. Thus, they pass a constitution whose provisions prohibit certain actions in later periods. This process of self-constraint can be seen in republican terms as an exercise in popular sovereignty. In addition, if the constitution is originally enacted under a good process, such as one having relatively stringent supermajority rules, it is likely to improve the welfare of the people over the course of the nation’s history. The distinctive interpretative method of republican constitutionalism is originalism: the meaning chosen by the people when the constitution is passed binds the people at later times.
In contrast, living constitutionalism is the distinctive interpretive method of the constitution of a mixed regime, which includes an aristocratic element.
Peter Martin Jaworski (Georgetown University) has posted Originalism All the Way Down: Or, the Explosion of Progressivism (Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence, Forthcoming) on SSRN.
Here is the abstract:
At least on its face the very same problems of interpretation apply to the written judgments of the Supreme Court as apply to written constitutions and statutes. Whenever the meaning of a ruling, or some part of it, is not immediately apparent — maybe because the still-standing precedent is decades old and written in a manner that would now be anachronistic, or because the Justice writing the opinion was laconic — should we try to discern what the Justices intended or meant to say? Should the guide, instead, be what a reasonable person would understand by the text at the time of the promulgation of the relevant ruling? If the ruling still stands, but is decades old, shall we breathe life into it by reading it in accordance with contemporary values? Shall we make use of records of oral argument, or what Justices may have said extra-judicially, or will we restrict ourselves to the text of the ruling alone?