Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Originalism's Frailties: A Reply to Professor Lamparello

Last week, Professor Lamparello argued on this blog that "originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation."  I'm skeptical. 

Admittedly, in the vacuum of political theory, originalism has a certain elegance and persuasive force.  The Framers created a system of separated powers, originalists reason.  Congress makes law; the judiciary merely interprets it.  Any interpretive theory that permits unelected judges to change the meaning of a law is dangerous and anti-democratic.  Thus, to curtail judicial legislation, originalists say that judges should endeavor to discover and preserve the meaning the Constitution's words bore at the time of ratification.  After all, the law is the law, until lawfully changed under Article V. 

I happily concede these points.  (What serious constitutional lawyer would dare disagree with these basic principles of political science?)  But they're not the whole story.

In this essay, I hope to show why a rigid, singular focus on original public meaning is a shortsighted way of interpreting many of the Constitution's provisions.  In Part I, I discuss serious reasons to doubt the idea that the Framers actually believed in originalism as an interpretive theory.  In Part II, I dissect Professor Lamparello's "ideal approach" to constitutional interpretation, highlighting its practical shortcomings and its lack of textual or historical support.  And in Part III, I interrogate Professor Lamparello’s claim that originalism most effectively constrains judges. 

I.    Originalists bear the burden of proving that originalism was, in fact, the original intent of the Framers.  But on that score, there is serious reason for doubt.

 Originalism's focus on the Framers' intent raises a threshold question: did the Framers actually believe in originalism?  Whether viewed through the lens of "New Originalism" (which eschews extratextual sources, focusing only on the original public meaning of the document's text) or "Traditional Originalism" (which focuses on the drafters' subjective intent), there are serious reasons to doubt that the Framers would have actually endorsed the theory.

    A.    The Constitution's text, structure, and purpose all cast doubt on the idea that the Framers would have preferred originalist judges.

In interpreting the Constitution, we must start with its text.[1]  To be sure, the text is frequently clear and free from ambiguity--nobody could seriously argue, for example, that Article I allows a state to elect three senators[2]--and when the text is clear, the inquiry ceases.  But the text also contains many provisions with broad, normative language.  Take, for example, the Constitution's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws,"[3] its prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments,"[4] or its clause forbidding "unreasonable searches and seizures."[5]  It's no coincidence that many of these nebulous, normative words are found within the Constitution's substantive guarantees. 

Why would the Framers purposefully choose such ambiguous, value-based language?  First, it was politically savvy, since it provided a way to quell the local concerns that presumably would have arisen during the states' ratification debates.  But more importantly, the Framers wanted their document to have staying power.  This is expressly confirmed by the Constitution's Preamble--which, originalists should agree, is a proper source of clarification in the face of textual ambiguity[6]--where it states that one of the Constitution's core purposes is "to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."[7] 

Let's pause here to nip a possible misapprehension in the bud.  Readers may presume I'm arguing for a Constitution whose fundamental meaning changes over time.  Not so.  The meaning of the Constitution's words doesn't change; I do not argue, for example, that "equal protection" should be redefined to sanction unequal insecurity.  But, as mentioned, the Constitution frequently uses ambiguous, normative language.  While the meaning of the words shouldn't change, our societal conception of what fits within those words--i.e., what those words tell judges they should be looking for--can grow.[8]  That's a key difference. 

Consider, for example, the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.  Few historians would argue that the Equal Protection Clause was intended to apply to women; conventional wisdom holds that the Reconstruction Amendments were principally aimed at combating racial prejudice against Black citizens.[9]  Indeed, in 1868, no state had an operative women's suffrage law,[10] and coverture still held a grip on American gender relations.[11]  And yet, the Amendment's words are plain: no State may "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."  While women might not have been considered "persons" deserving of "equal protection" in 1868, our attitudes and prejudices on that front have changed.  For that reason, the Supreme Court correctly held in Reed v. Reed[12] that the Equal Protection Clause applies to women.  Critically, the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause didn't change; the Court did not hold, for example, that the Clause no longer applied to Black citizens.  Our understanding of what the Equal Protection Clause tells us to look for, however, evolved. 

Would an originalist, focused solely on the ratifying generation's understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment's text, reach the Reed Court's conclusion?  I have my doubts.

Eighth Amendment jurisprudence provides a contrary example—one where the Court has wrongly changed the standard.  The Eighth Amendment forbids "cruel and unusual punishments."[13]  But one cannot determine what is "cruel" without engaging in a normative, moral analysis.[14]  For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court has correctly concluded that a punishment is unconstitutionally cruel if it is considered cruel in light of the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."[15]  But, critically, the Court has also held—wrongly, I contend—that the Eighth Amendment does not draw any meaning from “the standards that prevailed . . . when the Bill of Rights was adopted[.]”[16] 

The more proper reading of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause would hold that it prohibits both (1) punishments that would have been considered cruel and unusual in the founding era and (2) punishments that are cruel and unusual under our maturing society’s evolving standards of decency.  Had the Court not discarded history, this "evolving standards of decency" test wouldn’t have changed the meaning of the phrase "cruel and unusual" at all; it would have given full effect to the phrase by recognizing that it’s both descriptive and normative. 

Undeniably, originalists make many good points.  But too often, by refusing to look past the "original public meaning" of a constitutional provision, originalists unduly constrict (and therefore change) the Constitution's normative language.  In doing so, originalists commit the same sin they swear to disavow.

    B.    The historical record, too, casts doubt on the idea that the Framers would have approved of originalism.  

Originalists insist that New Originalism was actually the authoritative American method of legal interpretation until the mid-twentieth century, when Chief Justice Earl Warren took the bench.[17]  But here again, history renders that claim dubious. 

Take, for example, William Blackstone, who most scholars consider the authoritative expositor of the common law.  Justice Scalia has famously called Blackstone a "thoroughgoing originalist."[18]  Yet, in his Commentaries on the Law of England, Blackstone said that "the fairest and most rational method to interpret the will of the legislator, is by exploring his intentions at the time when the law made, by signs the most natural and probable.  And these signs are either the words, the context, the subject matter, the effects and consequence, or the spirit and reason of the law."[19]  Blackstone also said that "the most universal and effectual way of discovering the true meaning of a law, when the words are dubious, is by considering the reason and spirit of it; or the cause which moved the legislator to enact it."[20]  That's hardly the stuff of modern-day originalism.  

Consider, also, Chief Justice Marshall.  In Cohens v. Virginia,[21] Marshall asked rhetorically whether "the spirit of the constitution" would justify Virginia's exempting itself from the federal constitution.[22]  And in McCulloch v. Maryland,[23] Marshall said that "all means which are . . . not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional."[24]  Admittedly, Marshall also argued--as I do--that although "the spirit of an instrument, especially a constitution, is to be respected not less than its letter . . . the spirit is to be collected chiefly from its words."[25]  But the fact remains: Marshall was far from the rigid originalist many claim. 

Thomas Jefferson provides another example.  Concededly, Jefferson was in Paris during the summer of 1787, so his views on the Constitution cannot be considered controlling.  But, as a leading figure of the founding generation, and James Madison's friend and mentor, his insight into the Constitution is undeniably relevant.  Jefferson wrote this to Samuel Kercheval in 1816:

Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, & deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. they ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well: I belonged to it, and labored with it. it deserved well of it’s country. it was very like the present, but without the experience of the present: and 40. years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading: and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent & untried changes in laws and constitutions . . . but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind . . . we might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.[26]

All this is not to say that contrary evidence tending to support originalism can't be found.  It certainly can.  But that's precisely the point: the historical record from the Founding generation is hardly as one-sided as originalists claim.

II.    Professor Lamparello's "ideal" conception of originalism requires revising the constitutional text he claims to venerate.

Most of Professor Lamparello's essay presents garden-variety originalist arguments.  But one downright surprising argument comes near the end, where he says that whenever a law is challenged under a constitutional provision reasonably susceptible of two or more interpretations--for example, the "cruel and unusual punishments" clause--"the ideal approach would be for the Court to defer to the coordinate branches" and uphold the law's constitutionality.

That argument reflects a shockingly limited perception of the proper role of the judiciary--one that's entirely atextual.  The drafters easily could have written, for example, that "no act of Congress may be struck down as violative of the provisions of this Constitution, unless the act's unconstitutionality be clear and free from doubt."  But, as Hamilton pointed out in The Federalist No. 78, the drafters said no such thing:

If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their WILL to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.[27]

For someone so concerned about judicial legislation, it is certainly odd for Professor Lamparello to invent constitutional rules out of thin air.  And for someone so focused on the original public meaning of the Constitution, it is equally odd to advocate for an interpretive theory that faces such directly countervailing historical evidence. 

Professor Lamparello's theory is also impractical and ahistorical.  James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, pitched the Bill of Rights as a document that would make judges "guardians" of individual rights, just like Hamilton did in the passage excerpted above.[28]  But if judges could only strike down a law when no reasonable person could defend the law's constitutionality, then how could the judiciary effectively guard citizens' rights in the ordinary case?  After all, in what case can't one think of reasonable, good-faith arguments on both sides of a constitutional issue?  If the Framers actually intended the judiciary to defer to the political branches whenever presented with two plausible, competing arguments, then why include these constitutional prescriptions in the first place?  Wouldn't it be easier to simply say nothing and let the states legislate as they see fit? 

III.    Originalism, while theoretically attractive, does a poor job of constraining judges.

Originalism hails itself as the best way to constrain judges.  Critics have long questioned that claim, too. 

To see why, consider District of Columbia v. Heller.[29]  In Heller, both the majority and dissenting opinions cited historical evidence supporting their constitutional interpretation of the Second Amendment.  Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III has argued that, given the murky historical record in Heller, the Court should have stayed its hand and declined to strike down the District of Columbia's handgun prohibition.[30]  And as Judge Posner has noted, Judge Wilkinson's argument finds support from an unlikely source: Justice Scalia's treatise on legal interpretation.[31]  In the Foreword of Justice Scalia's treatise, Judge Easterbrook says this:

Words don't have intrinsic meanings; the significance of an expression depends on how the interpretive community alive at the time of the text's adoption understood those words.  The older the text, the more distant that interpretive community from our own.  At some point the difference becomes so great that the meaning is no longer recoverable reliably. . . .  [When that happens, the courts should] declare that meaning has been lost, so that the living political community must choose.[32]

This is a version of the judicial-restraint principle for which Professor Lamparello, Justice Scalia, and other originalists advocate.  In Heller, Justice Scalia's reading of the Second Amendment's history was likely erroneous.[33]  But even if the history is mixed, that should have led Justice Scalia to conclude that the relevant meaning had been "lost to the passage of time" and to entrust the answer to the living political community.[34]  The "living political community" in Heller was the District of Columbia legislature.  But, far from exercising the democratic "deference" Professor Lamparello advocates, the Court struck down the District of Columbia's gun-ownership prohibition. 

And historical questions plagued more than just the Heller majority's holding.  In a dictum, the Court explained the contours of the right it recognized:

[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.[35]

As Professor Reva Siegel has persuasively argued, there is little historical evidence supporting this passage, and it actually contradicts the Second Amendment's textually enunciated purposes.[36]  "In these passages," Professor Siegel concludes, "Justice Scalia seems to apply something other than an original 'public understanding' analysis."[37] 

United States v. Eichman[38] provides another example of how originalism fails to constrain judges.  In Eichman, Justice Scalia voted to strike down a federal statute outlawing the burning of the American flag.[39]  To Scalia's credit, it was a vote against his political predilections.  But it was certainly an odd ruling for an originalist.  The governing constitutional provision--"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech"[40]--says nothing about non-verbal forms of protest.  And the eighteenth-century conception of the speech right was much narrower than our modern understanding.  According to Blackstone, at common law, freedom of speech only forbade prior restraints on speech; it did not prohibit after-the-fact punishment of speech determined to be blasphemous, obscene, or seditious.[41]  Thus, a First Amendment that bans prohibitions on flag burning is decidedly unoriginalist.

Apparently anticipating the objection raised in this Part, Professor Lamparello preemptively defends his position by arguing that "in some circumstances, judges do rely on originalism to reach outcomes that coincide with their policy preferences.  However, that reflects bad judging, not problems with originalism per se."  Is the truth so conveniently simple?  Can we really shrug off as "bad judging" the remarkable methodological elasticity of originalism's leading champion?  Or is it possible that the problem lies deeper below the surface?

* * *

To be sure, no theory of constitutional interpretation is perfect.  But the manifold problems with originalism--too many to detail exhaustively in this short essay—lead me to question whether, as Professor Lamparello insists, originalism is the best we can do. 


[1] See, e.g., District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 576 (2008).

[2] See U.S. Const. art. I, § 3, cl. 1.

[3] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

[4] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[5] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[6] See Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 217 (1st ed. 2012) (hereinafter “Scalia & Garner, Reading Law) (approving of interpretive canon providing that “[a] preamble . . . is a permissible indicator of meaning”).

[7] U.S. Const. pmbl. (emphasis added).

[8] See also Furman v. Ga., 408 U.S. 238, 382 (1972) (reasoning that “[t]he standard itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change”). 

[9] See, e.g., Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 81 (1873).

[10] Women’s Suffrage in the U.S. by State, https://tag.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/suffrage-by-state.pdf (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[11] Encyclopedia Britannica, Coverture, https://www.britannica.com/topic/coverture (noting that “[c]overture was disassembled in the United States through legislation at the state level beginning in Mississippi in 1839 and continuing into the 1880s”). 

[12] 404 U.S. 71 (1971).

[13] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[14] Kennedy v. La., 554 U.S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Furman, 408 U.S. at 382). 

[15] Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).

[16] Atkins v. Va., 536 U.S. 304, 311 (2002).

[17] Richard A. Posner, The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia, New Republic (Aug. 24, 2012), https://newrepublic.com/article/106441/scalia-garner-reading-the-law-textual-originalism (hereinafter “Posner, Incoherence”). 

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] 19 U.S. 264 (1821).

[22] Id. at 383.

[23] 17 U.S. 316 (1819). 

[24] Id. at 421 (emphasis added).

[25] Sturges v. Crowninshield, 17 U.S. 122, 202 (1819). 

[26] Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters, https://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1384 (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[27] The Federalist No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton).

[28] The Bill of Rights: Its History & Significance, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/billofrightsintro.html (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[29] 554 U.S. 570 (2008). 

[30] Posner, Incoherence.

[31] Id.

[32] Scalia & Garner, Reading Law at xxv.

[33] Posner, Incoherence (noting that “most professional historians reject the historical analysis in Scalia’s opinion”). 

[34] Scalia & Garner, Reading Law at xxv.

[35] Heller, 554 U.S. at 626-27.

[36] See generally Reva B. Siegel, Dead or Alive: Originalism as Popular Constitutionalism in Heller, 122 Harv. L. Rev. 191 (2008).

[37] Id. at 200. 

[38] 496 U.S. 310 (1990). 

[39] Id. at 312.

[40] U.S. Const. amend. I.

[41] Posner, Incoherence.

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