Originalism and the Shakespeare Test

sold copy of complete works of  shakespeare open at the first pa

Ken Levy, law professor at LSU Law School, makes a strange case against originalism in his New York Times editorial, “The Case Against Originalism.”

First, the setup:

Textualism says that when interpreting the Constitution, judges should confine themselves to the words of the Constitution. Originalism says that if the words are at all unclear, then judges need to consult historical sources to determine their meaning at the time of ratification, and the correct application of these words to new cases should clearly follow.

Here’s what I call the Shakespeare test. I substitute “Shakespeare play” and related words for the “Constitution.” The point is simply to judge whether, and to what extent, a proposed method of reading the Constitution differs from what we’d use when reading something more familiar. (It doesn’t need to be a Shakespeare play. It could be a baseball rulebook, or a math textbook, or the newspaper. Whatever.)

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Gorsuch Nods

I haven’t been able to catch too much of the Gorsuch hearings, but I have heard some of it.  One of the exchanges, which has drawn some attention, involved Senator Amy Klobuchar asking Judge Gorsuch whether a woman President is consistent with the original public meaning: "So when the Constitution refers like 30-some times to ‘his' or ‘he' when describing the president of the United States, you would see that as, ‘Well, back then, they actually thought a woman could be president even though women couldn't vote?" Klobuchar asked. "Senator, I'm not looking to take us back to quill pens and horses…

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The Language of the Law and Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado

Recently, John McGinnis and I completed a paper entitled The Constitution and the Language of the Law.  The basic question addressed is whether the Constitution is written in ordinary language or in the language of the law.  But what turns on this question?  The Supreme Court’s recent controversial decision of Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado illustrates why it matters and how the failure to follow the language of the law tends to confer discretion on the justices. A Colorado jury convicted Pena-Rodriguez of a crime, but following the discharge of the jury two jurors stated that another juror had expressed anti-Hispanic bias towards…

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Originalism and the Incentives of the Legislator

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We usually assume that legislators write laws to be understood. But cases exist in which legislators write less clearly rather than more clearly. Well known and often discussed are the whys and wherefores of legislative delegation to executive agencies. Without intending a comprehensive list, here are a couple of other reasons why legislators write more ambiguously rather than less.

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The Constitution Is Written in the Language of the Law

The Constitution has launched hundreds of debates about its meaning.  But before these disputes can be settled an underlying clash of visions about the nature of its very language requires resolution.  One view holds that the Constitution is written in ordinary language and is thus fully accessible to anyone with knowledge of the English language.  The other, in contrast, is that the Constitution is written, like many other documents with legal force, in the language of the law.

The ordinary language view is often assumed both by the Supreme Court and scholars. But in a new paper Mike Rappaport and I show that the better view is that the Constitution is written in the language of law and that this has important implications for constitutional interpretation. Surprisingly, no one has ever considered how to determine whether the Constitution is written in the language of the law or in ordinary language.

We describe the factors to determine whether Constitution is written in the language of the law. The language is key and the paper for the first time catalogues all the technical terms in the original document.  We show that the number of legal terms in the Constitution is much larger than most people recognize and probably numbers about one hundred!

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Gary Lawson on Proving the Law

I received this book – Evidence of the Law: Proving Legal Claims – in the mail and am looking forward to reading it.  Gary Lawson, of course, is a leading originalist and an expert in administrative law.  I use his first rate Administrative Law casebook. In Evidence of the Law, Gary discusses the fact that our legal system, while focusing carefully on the methods and standards for proving facts, generally ignores the methods and standards for proving law.  Yet, such methods are crucial. And nowhere is this more true than in originalism.  If one thinks about constitutional originalism, it is very much concerned…

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Originalism Is Being Tried Today

Richard Primus has graciously clarified his claim about originalism. It is not that many originalists believe it has never been tried in simple sense. Instead, “in the context of my initial post, ‘never-been-tried’ is a shorthand for something like ‘not yet conducted with sufficient persistence and proficiency so as to let its record of conduct stand as a fair test of what the theory can deliver if carried into practice properly.’ ”

I don’t entirely agree with this narrower claim and I don’t think most other originalists would either, but it is a more interesting question. There are two parts to my demurral. Richard focuses on testing the question of whether originalism constrains decision makers and creating stability. Constraint and stability are not for me the chief advantages of originalism. Nor are they for such varied theorists as Randy Barnett, Keith Whittington, or Jack Balkin. And I am not sure the advantages that these theorists emphasize are reducible to an empirical test through case law. Mike Rappaport and I, for instance, have suggested that the original meaning of the Constitution is likely beneficent by other kinds of arguments. In short, there other justifications for originalism and other ways of making these justifications plausible than empirical review of cases . Originalism can be evaluated in other ways.

A more direct disagreement is that I think there has been enough practice of originalists to suggest, although not prove, that originalism does lead to substantial, albeit not perfect, constraint. Let me set aside the more distant past which was the subject of a prior post. In recent times Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were the most consistent adherents of originalism and not coincidentally they agreed in about ninety percent of cases.

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Originalism and Judge Neil Gorsuch

At the annual Originalism Works in Progress Conference, I try to discuss, at the beginning of the conference, the most important events concerning originalism in the past year.  Here is an excerpt of my remarks on Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch: Last year, I spoke about the sad passing of Justice Scalia and whether originalism could survive it.  But what a difference a year makes!  Based on his writings, it appears that Judge Neil Gorsuch would be an originalist justice.  Some of the strongest evidence of Gorsuch’s originalism comes from his Case Western Law Review Article on Justice Scalia. That essay…

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Has Originalism Been Tried?

Last weekend was the annual Originalism Works in Progress Conference at the University of San Diego.  It was another very enjoyable and productive event.  University of Michigan Law Professor, Richard Primus, who is a nonoriginalist and was in attendance, had some kind words to say about the conference in a recent blog post: I spent the weekend at a terrific conference at the Center for the Study of Originalism at the University of San Diego Law School.  There were good papers, insightful commentaries, sharp questions, and a general seriousness of engagement.  Most of the people in attendance were originalists.  I was…

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Once and Future Originalism

A sign of originalism’s strength is the annual conference on the subject now held at San Diego Law School under the direction of Mike Rappaport.  It attracts prominent originalists and, as importantly, ever more critics of originalism who now take this enterprise seriously.  One of those critics, Richard Primus, has blogged about the conference in a friendly manner.  Nevertheless, he is not correct in his thesis that many, if not most, originalist theorists  believe that originalism has never been tried before.  I have never heard such a bald assertion from my colleagues.

And that proposition would be obviously wrong about the course of constitutional law. James Madison, widely regarded as the father of the Constitution, supported what is now called originalism:

I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified in the nation. In that sense alone, it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that not be the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable exercise of its power.

A historian of constitutional law who is not himself originalist concurs that until the Progressive Era, nearly everyone appealed to originalist reasoning even if they at times disagreed to its outcome.

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