Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Supreme Court and Originalism

Justice Elena Kagan once stated, when referring to the justices on the Court, that “we are all originalists.”[1] She is right. Originalism, which has many variations, is the predominant interpretive theory in American constitutional law – and for good reason.

Below are a few reasons why originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation.

1.    Originalism focuses on process, not outcomes.

Originalism, when properly applied, ensures the integrity of the judicial decision-making process, and eschews a focus on whether the outcome of a decision is politically or personally desirable. This is not to say, of course, that judges should never consider outcomes, or the consequences of their rulings when deciding a case (and when the text reasonably supports such outcomes). It is to say, however, that judges should not base decisions on whether the outcome is consistent with their subjective values or policy predilections. As Justice Neil Gorsuch stated:

Of course, some suggest that originalism leads to bad results because the results inevitably happen to be politically conservative results. Rubbish. Originalism is a theory focused on process, not on substance. It is not “Conservative” with a big focused on politics. It is conservative in the small sense that it seeks to conserve the meaning of the Constitution as it was written. The fact is, a good originalist judge will not hesitate to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution’s original meaning, regardless of contemporary political consequences.[2]

Furthermore, as Justice Gorsuch noted, even if “originalism does lead to a result you happen to dislike in this or that case,” that should not matter because “[t]he “judicial Power” of Article III of the Constitution isn’t a promise of all good things.”[3]

2.    Originalism leads to conservative and liberal results because the focus is primarily on the legitimacy of the decision-making process, not on         reaching outcomes that reflect the justices’ subjective values.

When originalism is properly applied, it leads to conservative and liberal results because the justices are focused on interpreting the text, not reaching outcomes that comport with their policy preferences. As Justice Gorsuch explained:

In my own judicial career, I’ve written many originalist rulings with so-called “liberal” results. Like United States v. Carloss, where I ruled that the police violated a criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the curtilage of his home without a warrant despite four conspicuously posted no trespassing signs. Or Sessions v. Dimaya, where I ruled that an immigrant couldn’t constitutionally be punished according to a law so vague that judges were forced to give it content by fiat. Or Carpenter v. United States, where I explained that simply giving your property to another doesn’t necessarily mean you lose all your Fourth Amendment rights in it.[4] 

Justice Gorsuch is exactly right. In Texas v. Johnson, for example, the Court, with Justice Scalia in the majority, held that the First Amendment protected the right to burn the American flag.[5] In Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia held that generally applicable laws that only incidentally affect religious practices did not violate the Free Exercise Clause.[6] In Bostock v. Clayton County, Justice Gorsuch, an originalist, held that Title VII protects gay and transgendered employees from discrimination.[7]

And Justice Scalia's Fourth Amendment and Confrontation Clause jurisprudence shows that originalists reach outcomes that most living constitutionalists -- and liberals -- would support. Thus, originalism cannot be categorized as simply a tool for a conservative majority to implement a political agenda. 

3.    Originalism focuses on the Constitution’s words and what the Founders understood those words to mean, not on vague formulations about a         provision’s underlying purposes.

When interpreting a constitutional provision, originalists focus on the words – and what the Founders understood those words to mean – not the purposes of a constitutional provision.[8] And for good reason.

Determining the intent or purpose of a constitutional provision can be difficult, and even where it is ascertainable, it may not guide judges to an outcome that reflects a reasonable interpretation of the text. After all, a constitutional provision can have more than one purpose. How is a judge to quantify these purposes and decide which purpose should have priority over another? And at what level of generality – or specificity – do you define that purpose? Moreover, how should an alleged purpose be applied in a specific case, and given how broadly a purpose can be interpreted, how can it be applied without involving a judge’s subjective values? Put differently, a focus on a provision’s underlying purposes can unmoor judges from the Constitution’s text and, as Justice Scalia emphasized, leave them “at sea” where nothing but their personal values guide the way.[9] That is a prescription for judging of the most politicized and untenable kind.

Lest there be any doubt, recall the “sweet mystery  of life” passage where the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey stated, “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”[10] That passage is precisely what living constitutionalism, which states that the Constitution’s meaning changes over time, produces: a lot of nothing – except maybe those invisible penumbras that the Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, invented out of thin air, and from which it created unenumerated constitutional rights.[11]

4.    Originalism constrains judges and promotes democratic governance.

Courts should protect vigorously the express and implied rights enunciated in the Constitution. For example, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel can certainly be interpreted to include the right to effective assistance of counsel. But courts should not invent rights out of thin air that have no grounding in a reasonable interpretation of the text and that remove important social and political issues from the democratic process. Originalism is the best way to prevent this type of judicial overreach.

Think about it: where in the Constitution is there a right to abortion?[12] Where in the Constitution does it say that a state cannot authorize the death penalty for child rape?[13] Where in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which protects citizens from being deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, is there a substantive right to privacy (or any substantive rights whatsoever)?[14] Where in the Constitution does it say that a person under the age of eighteen cannot be sentenced to death for murder or sentenced to life imprisonment?[15] Where in the Constitution does it say that, when you provide personal information to third parties, you surrender all privacy rights in that information?[16] Where in the Constitution does it say that you do not have a right to assisted suicide, or suicide generally?[17] And what about the right to polygamy? Can that be found somewhere in the Constitution?

No.

And where are the rights that the Court recognized in Griswold and in Roe located in the Constitution?

Nowhere.

That’s why when the Court answers these questions, it is acting arbitrarily and basing its decisions on little more than the justices’ subjective values. Why, though, do the justices’ values or policy preferences matter more than every American citizen? And why should nine unelected and life-tenured justices be inventing rights for an entire nation? As Justice Scalia argued, “[i]f the constitution is not an ordinary law but rather this empty bottle into which each generation is going to pour the liquid that it desires, why should the bottle be filled by nine unelected judges?”[18] After all, when deciding whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual,” why should citizens trust nine unelected justices to determine what punishments are consistent with “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society?”[19] And what does that even mean?[20]

When judges have this kind of power, democracy is truly in danger. Of course, many will agree with the outcomes that the Court reached in these and other cases. But that is not the point. What should trouble citizens of every political persuasion is that the process by which these outcomes were reached had nothing to do with the Constitution. Instead, they originated from those invisible “penumbras” that Griswold invented and that any legitimate constitutional would find illegitimate. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with living constitutionalism. It allows judges to do whatever they want for whatever reason they want.

To be sure, decisions such as Roe, Kennedy, and Roper did not result from a principled interpretation of the Constitution. They happened because, at the time, the political affiliations of the justices were more liberal than conservative. And while many celebrated those decisions, they failed to consider that what the Court gives, it can take away whenever it wants. Indeed, the moment that you embrace living constitutionalism as a basis to create unenumerated rights, those rights are contingent on the whims of the justices and the justices’ respective political affiliations at a given moment in time. Lest there be any doubt, look no further than Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, where the Court overturned Roe and other precedents, suddenly discovering that the Constitution does not protect a right to abortion.[21] The only reason the Court overturned Roe was because there were more conservative justices on the Court. It was not because the Court suddenly gained new insight into constitutional meaning. Rather, it demonstrated that the foundation for constitutional rights is more political than principled.

This reduces constitutional meaning to little more than what the justices think it means – based on their political affiliations and subjective values – and with no regard to what you think it should mean. It is difficult to imagine fundamental rights with a more flimsy and arbitrary foundation. Simply put, the creation of unenumerated rights should occur through the legislature, not the courts, and the people, not nine unelected and life-tenured justices, should identify the unenumerated rights to which all citizens in a particular state are entitled.

5.    When judges have unchecked power or rely on their subjective values to reach decisions, it often leads to unjust outcomes.

Living constitutionalism, which states that the meaning of the Constitution changes over time, can lead to terribly unjust outcomes. As Justice Gorsuch states:

Virtually the entire anticanon of constitutional law we look back upon today with regret came about when judges chose to follow their own impulses rather than follow the Constitution’s original meaning. Look, for example, at Dred Scott and Korematsu. Neither can be defended as correct in light of the Constitution’s original meaning; each depended on serious judicial invention by judges who misguidedly thought they were providing a “good” answer to a pressing social problem of the day. A majority in Korematsu, unmoored from originalist principles, upheld the executive internment without trial of American citizens of Japanese descent despite our Constitution’s express guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws. A majority in Dred Scott, also disregarding originalist principles, held that Congress had no power to outlaw slavery in the Territories, even though the Constitution clearly gave Congress the power to make laws governing the Territories. In both cases, judges sought to pursue policy ends they thought vital. Theirs was a living and evolving Constitution.[22]

Indeed, “as Korematsu and Dred Scott illustrate, the pursuit of political ends through judicial means will often and ironically bring about a far worse result than anticipated—a sort of constitutional karma.”[23] The Court’s decision in Dobbs is a testament to this fact.

Furthermore, consider that those who support living constitutionalism so conveniently happen – in nearly every case – to be liberal. Why is that? Because they want the Court to reach outcomes that they believe are morally correct, and they want to politicize and use the Court to make policies that properly belong to the legislative process. To be sure, when was the last time that you encountered a liberal professor who was an originalist?

6.    Originalism is best suited to deal with constitutional ambiguity.

A significant problem when interpreting the Constitution is the fact that some provisions in the Bill of Rights contained broad language that is subject to reasonably different interpretations. For example, the Eight Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, and the Fourth Amendment prevents law enforcement from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the face of this ambiguity, the ideal approach would be for the Court to defer to the coordinate branches when reasonable people could disagree regarding a law’s constitutionality. For example, in Clinton v. New York, the Constitution’s Presentment Clause did not clearly support the conclusion that the line-item veto was unconstitutional.[24] Thus, why did the Court invalidate a law that was designed to reduce wasteful government spending? And in Citizens United v. FEC, the First Amendment’s text certainly did not answer the question of whether Congress’s law limiting independent expenditures was permissible.[25] Thus, why did the Court, including several originalists, invalidate a law that sought to reduce undue influence in the political process? That’s a great question.

In short, the answer to ambiguity is not living constitutionalism. It is deference. And when the Court does decide cases where a provision is ambiguous, originalism is the best, although certainly not perfect, approach because, at the very least, originalists will attempt to discern what the Founders understood the words to mean rather than basing decisions on subjective values.

***

Originalism is not perfect, and 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. And in the final analysis, originalism, when applied faithfully, limits judicial power and respects constitutional constraints on that power.

Ultimately, as Justice Scalia stated, “[y]ou either adopt originalism or essentially you say to your judges, ‘Come govern us.’”[26]  Put differently, the Constitution does not give courts the authority to “change meaning from age to age to comport with whatever the zeitgeist thinks appropriate.”[27] And when scholars base their opinion of the Court – or of interpretive methods – on whether they agree with a decision, they are politicizing the Court and contributing to the delegitimization of the judiciary.

 

[1] Kagan: 'We Are All Originalists' - The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times (typepad.com)

[2] Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

[6] 494 U.S. 872 (1990)

[7] 590 U.S.             , 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020). Additionally, originalism can and does support invalidating bans on interracial and same-sex marriage.

[8] See Pete Williams, Scalia: Judges Should Interpret Words, Not Intent (Aug. 22, 2012), available at:  Scalia: Judges should interpret words, not intent (nbcnews.com)

[9]  U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia & Stephen Breyer Conversation on the Constitution (2009), available at:

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia & Stephen Breyer Conversation on the Constitution (2009) - YouTube

[10] 505 U.S. 833(1992).

[11] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[12]  See Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[13]  See Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

[14] See Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); U.S. Const., Amend XIV.

[15] See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[16] Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979).

[17] Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997).

[18] Dennis Vandal, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Rejects Idea of ‘Living Constitutionalism,” (Dec. 10, 2012), available at: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia rejects idea of 'Living Constitution' - nj.com

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

[20] This is not to say that the Court’s decisions in  Griswold, Roe, and Roper did not reach good outcomes. The problem is that it took making bad constitutional law to reach those outcomes.

[21] 597 U.S.            , 2022 WL 2276808 (June 24, 2022).

[22] Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[23]  Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[24] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

[25] 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

[26] Dennis Vandal, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Rejects Idea of ‘Living Constitutionalism,” (Dec. 10, 2012), available at: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia rejects idea of 'Living Constitution' - nj.com

[27] Id.

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