Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Shortcomings in Arguing Original Public Meaning
From questions posed at the confirmation hearings of now-Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the decisions at the end of the most recent Supreme Court term and the lower court decisions that soon followed, the rapid recent embrace of “original public meaning” as the metric for constitutional interpretation now dominates appellate argument. Some judges even somewhat crassly pose the question: is there an originalism argument to support your position?
Originalism’s shortcomings are apparent. James Madison, rightly recognized as the Father of the Constitution, described records of the Constitutional Convention as “defective” and “inaccurate.” Justice Robert Jackson critically explained that “[j]ust what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharaoh.” Judges commonly rely on a highly selective use of history that allows the invention of intent, rather than its discovery, as Professor Ronald Dworkin wrote. And, however illuminating the historical inquiry can be, even Justice Antonin Scalia, a leading advocate of this interpretative methodology, described himself as a “fainthearted originalist” in order to avoid the absurd results it could bring about.
Certainly, many underlying assumptions of the society the Framers lived in no longer undergird modern society. Just as their attitudes about gender and race, land ownership and the common good influenced their attitudes about a host of issues of constitutional dimension, modern sensibilities about these topics must look at deeper meanings to understand contemporary application. Even advances in transportation, communications, and science more generally have profound implications for constitutional understandings. And, the Constitution, written in the language of the common law, is capable of sensible application unforeseen by its progenitors. Even the most faithful originalist can only see the past through the eyes of the present.
However, the revolutionary nature and adventurism of the Constitution seems missing from the debate over originalism and its application to current issues. Ideas from the Enlightenment and idealized versions of what good government means animated the effort, even if myopic about how those ideals contradicted slavery and other institutions left unaffected. Still, those who framed the Constitution and supported its instigation publicly sought two things: a government with the energy to prove Montesquieu wrong about the viability of an extended republic by enabling an experiment in self-government across vast territory and a regime capable of respecting rights grounded in ideals of liberty, justice, and equality. They imagined continuing change toward a “more perfect union,” never believing that their efforts had achieved that goal. And they imagined continuing debates on what they had wrought. As Madison stated during the debate on the Jay Treaty in the First Congress, the Framers were not of one mind about the words of the Constitution. Instead, “whatever veneration might be entertained for the body of men who formed our Constitution, the sense of that body could never be regarded as the oracular guide in expounding our Constitution.”
Indeed, the change of attitude he and others adopted about the authority of the federal government to charter a national bank reveals that understandings can change based on arguments and experience that demonstrate greater flexibility than some thought the words portended. Notably, on the issue of a national bank, respected constitutional framers divided on its legality from the start.
We see the same indeterminacy in the affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court tomorrow. Contradicting amicus briefs by historians explain why one side or the other should prevail. The opposing parties also invoke Brown v. Board of Education, claiming it supports them and not the other side. All of it confirms that advocacy is about argument – and no side has a monopoly on any mode of interpretation.
There is a lesson to be drawn. The appellate advocate must enter the courtroom clear-eyed, aware of the outsized role that history now plays in constitutional interpretation while cognizant of its shortcomings. The advocate must address that thirst for historical support while also understanding that other tools exist to reach a result faithful to the Constitution with an equal claim to grounding in history. Anyone who tells you only a single path exists to reach the right result misunderstands the interpretative exercise.