The Court’s Alleged Power to Ignore the Original Meaning

In the past, I have been critical of the claim that positivism and the rule of recognition requires originalism.  Instead, my view has been that the rule of recognition allows both originalism and nonoriginalism. But I hope that my criticism of the case for originalist positivism has not obscured one very significant accomplishment of this argument.  I believe that scholars such as Will Baude and Steve Sachs have made a strong argument that the Supreme Court does not claim the power to ignore the Constitution’s original meaning, unless the Supreme Court asserts that it is following precedent. (Where the original meaning…

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Constitutional Interpretation in Republican and Mixed Regimes

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  In addition, if the constitution is originally enacted under a good process, such as one having relatively stringent supermajority rules, it is likely to improve the welfare of the people over the course of the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.

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Originalism and the Good Constitution at the Cato Institute

Earlier this week, John McGinnis and I appeared at the Cato Institute to make a presentation on our book, Originalism and the Good Constitution.  The event was moderated by Trevor Burrus of Cato and commentary was supplied by Roger Pilon of Cato and by Brianne Gorad of the Constitutional Accountability Center.  You can watch the video here. Roger took issue with our book from a natural rights perspective.  He accused the book of endorsing Borkianism and modern constitutional law, not the original constitution, on the ground that we left too much room for democracy.  But I believe that Roger is mistaken. …

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Originalism and Ideology

I missed this article – Originalists, Politics, and Criminal Law on the Rehnquist Court by Rachel Barkow – when it came out, but I thought this part of the abstract was interesting: By reviewing all of the Rehnquist Court's criminal opinions in argued cases during the ten-year period from the October 1994 Term through the 2003 Term, this Article shows that the Justices' votes in criminal cases do not fit neatly into the attitudinal model. [Mike Rappaport insertion: the attitudinal model holds that the votes of the Justices are based on their political views, not the law.]  While a review of…

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Should Congress Adopt a New Independent Counsel Statute?  The Constitutional Issues

One of the principal concerns about the Obama Administration are the scandals and the claims that it is violating the law.  And sadly the congressional investigation process does not seem to be adequately doing its job.  Thus, it is worthwhile thinking about alternative institutions.

The principal method used back in the 80s and 90s was the independent counsel (IC). Unfortunately, the independent counsel was both unconstitutional (for the reasons discussed in Justice Scalia’s dissent in Morrison v. Olson) and subject to serious problems. But while the original IC statute had these problems, that does not preclude employing a reformed IC to investigate the executive branch.

Let’s start with the unconstitutionality of the original IC. Under the old regime, the IC was not subject to the direction of the President and therefore in my view was unconstitutional. In addition, the IC was appointed by a court on the ground that he was an inferior officer, even though he was clearly in my view a principal officer who could be appointed only by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Both of these problems are rectifiable. First, the IC could be made formally subject to the direction of the President. The statute might provide that the IC is subject to the direction of and removal by the President, but that the Congress believes that presidential direction of the IC would be problematic as a policy matter and requests that the President not direct the IC. The statute might also require the IC to disclose to the public if the President gave him a direction and to keep notes of what the direction was. It is likely under this arrangement that the President would not give any orders to the IC, because he would pay a significant political price for doing so.

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The Drafters and the Ratifiers

It is sometimes said that the ratifiers of the Constitution should count more in determining its original meaning than the drafters.  I am not so sure. To begin with, this distinguishing between the drafters and the ratifiers appears to turn on an original intent (versus an original public meaning) understanding of originalism.  Under an original public meaning apprach, it is the meaning that a reasonable and knowledgeable person would give to the Constitution.  And that meaning is no more likely to be that of the ratifiers than the drafters. But some people favor the original intent approach.  Yet, even under this approach,…

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The Constitution as Law Nested in Other Law

I am late to the party discussing whether the Constitution is best understand through the prism of “popular” or “elite” meanings.  There have already been fine contributions by Ilya Somin, Timothy Sandefur, Mike Ramsey and Mike Rappaport.

As Mike Rappaport has noted, he and I believe the Constitution is a legal document and thus legal rules will tell us how to determine meaning, including what degree we should look to evidence from popular as opposed to more technical meanings. I just wanted to add that there is substantial evidence from the Constitution itself that is was to be interpreted with legal rules. In that sense, it often cannot be understood without an elite sensibility, assuming we understand lawyers to be elites.

As we note in our article, Original Methods Originalism: a New Theory of Interpretation and the Case Against Construction:

The Constitution defines itself as the “supreme Law of the Land.” The fact that the Constitution was a legal document was not simply left to implication by the enactors but was set forth explicitly in the Constitution itself.

There are also specific indications in the text of the Constitution that the document would be interpreted according to legal rules. We provide some examples in our article. I want to add one more.

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Justice Scalia, Ordinary Meanings, and Legal Meanings

Mike Ramsey, Ilya Somin, and now Tim Sandefur have been having a debate over whether the original meaning of the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with the meaning as understood by the ordinary public or by people with legal knowledge.  I may have more to say about this next week, but for now I want to note a significant issue.

Under the original methods originalism position that John McGinnis and I defend in Originalism and the Good Constitution, the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with the interpretive rules that would have been deemed applicable to it at the time of its enactment.  Since the Constitution is a legal document, we believe these interpretive rules are those that would have been applied to a legal document.  These legal interpretive rules would sometimes require that the ordinary meaning apply rather than a more technical meaning, but they would often require legally informed meanings and understandings to be employed.

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Justice Sutherland’s Uncertain Trumpet

I still remember the thrill of reading Justice George Sutherland’s dissent in Home Building Loan Association v. Blaisdell.   In that case the majority of the Court allowed Minnesota to extend the time that homeowners could protect their mortgages from foreclosure even against the  terms of their contract. The decision flew in the face of the text of the Contract Clause, which provides that “No State shall impair the obligation of contracts. “ The Court’s reasoning was essentially that the emergency of the Depression justified the abrogation. Justice Sutherland wrote a devastating dissent, showing not only did the constitutional text prohibit Minnesota’s action but that the Framers foresaw the need to protect creditors precisely in times of emergency. In a course where almost all my fellow students celebrated the Warren Court, Justice Sutherland was my hero.

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Originalism and Current Practices

With a view towards President Obama’s military actions against ISIS, Mike Ramsey has a good post on whether the significant limits imposed by the Constitution’s original meaning on the President’s power to initiate hostilities operate to place inconvenient constraints on the US’s ability to take desirable actions. Mike concludes that the original meaning’s constraints, while considerable, would still allow the US significant ability to take action.

Mike writes that the President: “has independent power to respond to attacks . . . on the United States”; to “deply troops to defensive positions in support of an ally” (and to respond if those troops are attacked); and to “transfer weapons and supplies to allied forces” (which in my opinion should have been done a long time ago).

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