There are many different theories of constitutional interpretation, but the most controversial and also perhaps the most influential is "originalism"--actually a family of constitutional theories. The idea that courts would look to evidence from the constitutional convention, the ratification debates, The Federalist Papers, and the historical practice shortly after ratification of the Constitution of 1789 (or to equivalent sources for amendments) is an old one. This post provides a very brief introduction to "originalism" that is aimed at law students (especially first-year law students) with an interest in legal theory.
Originalism is not just an ivory tower theory. It has had a profound influence on the practice of constitutional interpretation and the political contest over the shape of the federal judiciary. President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork (an avowed originalist) was one key moment--with his defeat by the Democrats was seen as a political rejection of originalism. The current Supreme Court has at least two members who seem strongly influenced by originalist constitutional theory--Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas and two others, John Roberts and Samuel Alito who may also be receptive to originalist arguments.
The Origins of Originalism
No one scholar or judge deserves credit for originalism as a movement in constitutional theory and practice, but in my opinion one of the crucial events in the originalist revival was the publication of Raoul Berger's book, Government by Judiciary in 1977 by Harvard University Press. As you can guess from the title, Berger's book was very critical of the Warren Court (and its aftermath in the 70s). One of the key responses to Berger was the publication of The Misconceived Quest for the Original Understanding by Paul Brest in 1980. Brest's article initiated an intense theoretical debate over the merits of originalism that continues today. The landscape changed again in the late 1980s, when Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that originalists should shift their attention from "the original intentions of the framers" to the "public meaning of the constitutional text" or "original meaning."
The New Originalism
The final chapter of the originalism debate in legal theory has yet to be written--and perhaps it never will be. But one last set of developments is particularly important. In the 70s and early 80s, originalism was strongly associated with conservative judicial politics and conservative legal scholars. But in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, this began to change. One of the important moves was the shift from "original intentions" to "original public meaning," but two other developments were key. First, Bruce Ackerman's work on constitutional history suggested the availability of "left originalism" that maintained the commitment to the constitutional will of "We the People" but argued that the constitution included a New Deal constitutional moment that legitimated the legacy of the Warren Court. (Ackerman does not call himself an "originalist," but many of Ackerman's former students do work that is implicitly or explicitly originalist.) Second, Randy Barnett (the leading figure in libertarian legal theory) embraced originalism in an influential article entitled An Originalism for Nonoriginalists. The most recent development in this dynamic is Jack Balkin's attempt to reconcile originalism with living constitutionalism. Balkin's article, "Abortion and Original Meaning" (link provided below) elicited a good deal of commentary and criticism: his recent book, Living Originalism, further develops his take on originalist theory and applies it to a variety of topics.
After the publication of Paul Brest's Misconceived Quest one heard talk that originalism was dead as a serious intellectual movement. These days one is just as likely to hear pronouncements of a different sort: "we are all originalists" or "originalism and living constitutionalism are compatible" or even "originalism is trivially true. Contemporary debates about originalism sometimes use the label, "the New Originalism" to distinguish the current emphasis on "original public meaning" from older forms of originalism that emphasized "original intentions." The story of that transition is crucial to understanding the current discussion among constitutional theorists.
Early originalists emphasized something called the original intentions of the framers. Even in the early days, there were disputes about what this phrase meant. Of course, there were debates about whether the framers (a collective body) had any intentions at all. And there were questions about what counted as "intentions," e.g. expectations, plans, hopes, fears, and so forth. But the most important early debate concerned levels of generality. The intentions of the framers of a given constitutional provision can be formulated as abstract and general principles or as particular expectations with respect to various anticipated applications of the provision. Most theorists will assent to this point, which flows naturally from the ordinary usage and conceptual grammar of the concept of intention. The difficulty comes because the different formulations of intention can lead to different results in any given particular case. For example, the intention behind the equal protection clause might be formulated at a relatively high level of generality--leading to the conclusion that segregation is unconstitutional--or at a very particular level--in which case the fact that the Reconstruction Congress segregated the District of Columbia schools might be thought to support the "separate but equal" principle of Plessy v. Ferguson. Perhaps the most rigorous defender of the original intentions version of originalism has been Richard Kay in a series of very careful articles.
Yet another challenge to original-intent originalism was posed by Jefferson Powell's famous article, The Original Understanding of Original Intent, published in 1985. Powell argued that the framers themselves did not embrace an original intention theory of constitutional interpretation. Of course, this does not settle the theoretical question. The framers, after all, could have been wrong on this point. But Powell's critique was very powerful for those who insisted that constitutional interpretation must always return to origins. A certain kind of original-intent theory was self-defeating, if Powell's historical analysis was correct. Moreover, some of the reasons that Powell identified for the framers' resistance to originalism were quite powerful. Especially important was the idea that "secret intentions" or "hidden agendas" had no legitimate role to play in constitutional meaning. In the end, however, Powell's article actually had the effect of turning originalism in a new direction--from original intention to original meaning.
Original Public Meaning
The original-meaning version of originalism emphasizes the meaning that the Constitution (or its amendments) would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoptions. How would the Constitution of 1789 have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted? Of course, the same sources that are relevant to original intent are relevant to original meaning. So, for example, the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia may shed light on the question how the Constitution produced by the Convention would have been understood by those who did not participate in the secret deliberations of the drafters. But for original-meaning originalists, other sources become of paramount importance. The ratification debates and Federalist Papers can be supplemented by evidence of ordinary usage and by the constructions placed on the Constitution by the political branches and the states in the early years after its adoption. The turn to original meaning made originalism a stronger theory and vitiated many of the powerful objections that had been made against original-intentions originalism.
This sets the stage for what is sometimes called “the New Originalism” and also is called “Original Meaning Originalism.” Whatever the actual origins of this theory, the conventional story identifies Antonin Scalia as having a key role. As early as 1986, Scalia gave a speech exhorting originalists to “change the label from the Doctrine of Original Intent to the Doctrine of Original Meaning.” The phrase “original public meaning” seems to have entered into the contemporary theoretical debates in the work of Gary Lawson with Steven Calabresi as another “early adopter.” The core idea of the revised theory is that the original meaning of the constitution is the original public meaning of the constitutional text.
Randy Barnett and Keith Whittington have played prominent roles in the development of the “New Originalism.” Both Barnett and Whittington build their theories on a foundation of “original public meaning,” but they extend the moves made by Scalia and Lawson in a variety of interesting ways. For the purposes of this very brief survey, perhaps their most important move is to embrace the distinction between “constitutional interpretation” understood as the enterprise of discerning the semantic content of the constitution and “constitutional construction,” which we might tentatively define as the activity of further specifying constitutional rules when the original public meaning of the text is vague (or underdeterminate for some other reason). This distinction explicitly acknowledges what we might call “the fact of constitutional underdeterminacy.” With this turn, original-meaning originalist explicitly embrace the idea that the original public meaning of the text “runs out” and hence that constitutional interpretation must be supplemented by constitutional construction, the results of which must be guided by something other than the semantic content of the constitutional text.
Once originalists had acknowledged that vague constitutional provisions required construction, the door was opened for a reconciliation between originalism and living constitutionalism. The key figure in that reconciliation has been Jack Balkin, whose influential 2006 and 2007 essays Abortion and Original Meaningand Original Meaning and Constitutional Redemptionhave argued for a reconciliation of original meaning originalism with living constitutionalism in the form of a theory that might be called “the method of text and principle.” Balkin has called his position on the relationship between originalism and living constitutionalism "comptibilism," but it is important to understand that this means that an originalist approach to interpretation is consistent with a living constitutionalist approach to construction.
Yet another important twist in originalist theory is emphasized by the work of Bruce Ackerman: a twist that I shall call "regime theory." The foundation for regime theory is the simple observation that the Constitution of the United States was adopted in several pieces--the Constitution of 1789 was supplemented by a variety of amendments. And of these amendments, the three reconstruction amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) are of especial importance--because of the significant structural transformation they work in the relationship between the powers of the national government and the powers of the states. Interpreting the whole Constitution requires an understanding of the relationship between the provisions of 1789 and those adopted during Reconstruction. Some regime theorists argue that the interaction between these two constitutional regimes has the implication that provisions adopted in 1789 take on a new meaning and significance after the Reconstruction Amendments were adopted.
Ackerman's own version of regime theory includes a fascinating and important challenge for originalists of all stripes. Ackerman emphasized the fact that both the Constitution of 1789 and the Reconstruction Amendments were adopted through processes that were extralegal under the legal standards the prevailed at the time. The Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent of all the states for constitutional amendments and for complicated reasons, it seems likely that the Reconstruction Amendments were of dubious legality if strictly judged by the requirements set forth for amendments in Article V. Ackerman's conclusion was that the Constitution derives its legitimacy, not from the legal formalities, but from "We the People," when mobilized in extraordinary periods of constitutional politics. Perhaps the most controversial conclusion that Ackerman reaches is that the New Deal involved another such constitutional moment, in which "We the People" authorized President Roosevelt to act as an extraordinary Tribune, empowered to alter the constitutional framework through a series of transformative appointments. If one accepts this view, then one might begin to ask questions about the "original meaning" of the New Deal--a kind of originalism that would surely not be embraced by the conservative proponents of originalism in the 70s and early 80s.
Does Originalism Have a Core?
Originalism continues to evolve, and the lines of development sometimes converge, but it is fair to observe that originalism in the early years of the twenty-first century has several variations. "Original public meaning" is one focal point, and the distinction between "interpretation" and "construction" has gained widespread traction, but there are many points upon which originalists disagree. This leads to the question: does originalism have a core? One answer to this question focuses on the distinction between two dimensions of the debate about originalism. The first dimension is linguistic: the linguistic dimension of controversies about constitutional interpretation addresses the question, "What is the meaning of the constitutional text?" The second dimensions is normative: the normative dimension of debates about constitutional practice addresses the question: "How should constitutional actors (judges, other officials, and citizens) act once the meaning of the constitution has been determined?" Almost all originalists agree that the linguistic meaning of the constitutional text was fixed at the time each provision was framed and ratified: this idea can be called the fixation thesis. Originalists have different views about the effect that the constitutional text should have, but almost all originalists would agree that at a minimum the original meaning should constraint constitutional practice: this idea can be called the constraint principle.
The point made in the prior paragraph can easily be misunderstood. New originalists who embrace the distinction between construction and interpretation concede that the meaning of some constitutional provisions is vague, and therefore that these provisions require construction that goes beyond translation of the meaning of the text into legal doctrine. The core commitment of originalism to fixed linguistic meaning does not necessarily entail fixed constructions. For example, it might be the case that the key phrases that define the constitutional separation of powers, "judicial power," "executive power," and "legislative power," have an original public meaning that was vague. Given this vagueness, much of the important work required to resolve a dispute about the application of these phrases must be done by constitutional construction. This means that originalists who share the core commitment to the idea that meaning was fixed by 1789 when the Constitution was ratified may disagree about the proper method of construction of the separation of powers provisions.
Originalists disagree about other important questions as well. In particular, there is no consensus among originalists about the normative justifications for fidelity to the original meaning. Some originalists belive that originalism is normatively justified by popular sovereignty theory: we should adhere to the original meaning because it was ratified by "We the People." Other originalists, like Randy Barnett, argue that the legitimacy of the Constitution is a function of the justice of its content. And yet other originalists have argued that adherence to original meaning is justified by the rule of law values of predictability, certainty, and stability. These disagreements about normative foundations may lead to further disagreements about the extent to which "original meaning" should trump other considerations. For example, should constitutional actors always adhere to original meaning when it conflicts with historical practice or judicial precedent?
Originalism and Precedent
We are already beginning to see originalists coming to grips with the relationship between original meaning and precedent--both in the narrow sense of Supreme Court decisions and the broader sense of the settled practices of the political branches of government and the states. Some originalists have argued that as a general rule, constitutional actors should follow original meaning, even if it would conflict with longstanding historical practice or settled precedent. Other originalists argue that precedent and/or historical practice can trump original meaning in specified circumstances. Among originalist judges, Justice Scalia has sometimes argued that precedent trumps original meaning, whereas Justice Thomas seems to be more willing to upset precedent that is inconsistent with originalism.
The New Critics of the New Originalism
The most recent installment in debates over the new originalism has been the emergence of a recent body of work that criticizes the new originalism. This work includes "Rebooting Originalism" by Stephen Griffin, "Originalism is Bunk" by Mitch Berman, and "Originalism's Living Constitutionalism," by Thomas Colby and Peter Smith. The distinctive feature of the new criticism is that it takes into account, in various ways, originalisms shift from intentions to public meanings.
This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon is both too long and too short. Too long, because I strive to make Lexicon entries sufficiently brief so that they can be read in just a few minutes. Too short, because the convulated terrain of the originalism debates can only be fully mapped (much less argued out) in a very long article. Nonetheless, I hope that I have provided enough background for a beginning student of constitutional law to get a sense of the lay of the land. Debates about the new originalism are at the center of contemporary constitutional theory, but the long and twisted history of those debates makes it difficult to get started without a guide.
Related Lexicon Entries
- Legal Theory Lexicon 030: Textualism
- Legal Theory Lexicon 043: Formalism and Instrumentalism
- Legal Theory Lexicon 051: Vagueness and Ambiguity
- Legal Theory Lexicon 063: Interpretation and Construction
- Legal Theory Lexicon 071: The New Originalism
This very selective bibliography includes some of the articles that have been influential in the ongoing debates over originalism.
- Bruce Ackerman, We the People: Foundations (Harvard University Press 1991) & We the People: Transformations (Harvard University Press 1998).
- Randy Barnett, An Originalism for Nonoriginalists, 45 Loyola Law Review 611 (1999) & Restoring the Lost Constitution (Princeton University Press 2004).
- Raoul Berger, Government by Judicary (Harvard University Press 1977).
- Robert Bork, The Tempting of America (Vintage 1991).
- Paul Brest, The Misconceived Quest for the Original Understanding, 60 Boston University Law Review 204 (1980).
- Robert N. Clinton, Original Understanding, Legal Realism, and the Interpretation of the Constitution, 72 Iowa L. Rev. 1177 (1987).
- Richard Kay, Adherence to the Original Intentions in Constitutional Adjudication: Three Objections and Responses, 82 Northwestern Univeristy Law Review 226 (1988).
- Gary Lawson, Proving the Law, 86 NW. U. L. REV. 859, 875 (1992).
- Jefferson Powell, The Original Understanding of Original Intent, 98 Harv. L. Rev. 885 (1985).
- Antonin Scalia, Originalism: The Lesser Evil, 57 U. Cin. L. Rev. 849 (1989)
- Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation (Princeton University Press 1997)
- Antonin Scalia, Speech Before the Attorney General's Conference on Economic Liberties (June 14, 1986). in Office of Legal Policy, Original Meaning Jurisprudence: A Sourcebook 106 (U.S. Dept. of Justice 1987)
- Lawrence Solum, Originalism as Transformative Politics, 63 Tulane Law Review 1599 (1989).
- Keith E. Whittington, Constitutional Interpretation: Textual Meaning, Original Intent, and Judicial Review (Kansas 1999) & Constitutional Construction: Divided Power and Constitutional Meaning (Harvard University Press 2001).
- Originalism: A Quarter Century of Debate (Stephen G. Calabresi ed., Regnery Press 2007).
- Jack Balkin, Abortion and Original Meaning
- Jack Balkin, Original Meaning and Constitutional Redemption
- Randy E. Barnett, Scalia's Infidelity: A Critique of Faint-Hearted Originalism, Underlying Principles & An Originalism for Nonoriginalists
- Mitchell Berman, Originalism is Bunk
- Emily C. Cumberland, Originalism, in a Nutshell
- Thomas Colby & Peter Smith, Originalism's Living Constitutionalism
- Stephen Griffin, Rebooting Originalism
- John O. McGinnis and Michael B. Rappaport, A Pragmatic Defense of Originalism
- Lawrence Solum, Originalism as Transformative Politics
- Lawrence Solum, Semantic Originalism
- Lawrence Solum, The Supreme Court in Bondage: Constitutional Stare Decisis, Legal Formalism, and the Future of Unenumerated Rights
- Lawrence Solum, District of Columbia v. Heller and Originalism.
(This entry was last revised on April 3, 2016.)