Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Can't We All Just Get Along?

In an extended post on the Volokh Conspiracy, Randy Barnett takes issue with both my account of originalism and my defense of living Constitutionalism. I try to avoid academic esoterica in my blog posts, so I'm not going to give a point-by-point rebuttal here. Instead, I'll use this post to express some skepticism about the utility of the term "originalism" once it is rendered compatible with living Constitutionalism, as Barnett and some others want to render it.

The key move for "compatibilists" (not my term) is to say that a good originalist can leave space for the living Constitution once the original meaning runs out. Barnett gives a nice example: To decide whether thermal imaging is a search for Fourth Amendment purposes, we can't consult the original public meaning of the term "search," because the term had no content with respect to that question in 1791. We are thus in the domain of what Keith Whittington calls "construction," which, unlike "interpretation," permits judges (and other constitutional interpreters) to consult more modern materials. The domain of construction is compatible with the living Constitution, and thus we all seem to get along.

But if that's so, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. Either the domain of construction is large relative to interpretation, in which case originalism is a largely indeterminate theory, or the domain of construction is small relative to interpretation, in which case a jurisprudence of original understanding would look very different from the living Constitutionalism that we have. And if that's so, then originalism remains susceptible to the criticism that it leads to morally odious results (e.g., the 14th Amendment doesn't forbid most forms of official sex discrimination) or results that would be enormously disruptive of our legal/political order (e.g., much of the federal administrative state is invalid).

I would prefer the first of these reconciliations, which I regard as a near-total surrender by originalism. However, even then, I would have doubts. An originalist who thinks that the domain of construction is large relative to the domain of interpretation still thinks that within the domain of interpretation, the original understanding necessarily prevails. In my view, that's not required. When there is a clear original understanding, that understanding has much to recommend it. But I would not be prepared to say that it is entitled to a conclusive presumption of correctness. Suppose---as Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment strongly suggests---that we think the original public meaning of the Equal Protection Clause does not forbid blatant, official sex discrimination by the state. (E.g., women can't be lawyers.) As I understand the newfangled (as well as the oldfangled) originalism, this means that the modern sex discrimination cases are simply wrong.

And if originalists are tempted to make an argument that in fact the public meaning of equal protection in 1868 was inconsistent with sex discrimination, then they should feel free to substitute an example that leads to some equally odious result (that is not clearly required by the text as currently read). If the originalist still gamely argues that the original understanding is compatible with modern understandings, that casts doubt on the claim that originalism is really driving interpretation (as opposed to construction).

Posted by Mike Dorf

20 comments:

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

Suppose---as Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment strongly suggests---that we think the original public meaning of the Equal Protection Clause does not forbid blatant, official sex discrimination by the state. (E.g., women can't be lawyers.) As I understand the newfangled (as well as the oldfangled) originalism, this means that the modern sex discrimination cases are simply wrong.

Or maybe a new originalist would characterize "equal protection" as vague -- thus placing it in the zone of construction.

So how does a new originalist apply the Ninth Amendment? It seems to me that the only thing concrete about the Ninth is the idea behind it -- i.e., don't forget about the UNenumerated rights. Would a new originalist see privacy as a reasonable outcome in the "zone of construction"?

Sally said...

Wouldn't writing about Eliot Spitzer be a lot more interesting? Did he violate the Mann Act? Is he guilty of "structuring"?

What's the over/under on the number of days before he announces his resignation?

Stuff like that.

Garth Sullivan said...

i like barnett's charge that you have confused ambiguous with vague.

how many angels again?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Sally is absolutely right. Spitzer would be a much more interesting topic. I somehow felt compelled to respond to the awful charge that I had confused vagueness with ambiguity. Now if only I knew the first thing about the crime of structuring . . . .

Chris said...

I think that the lack of attention to what might seem to be academic esoterica is leaving things unnecessarily clouded. My way to have a partially-changing and partially-fixed Constitution is to keep the sense fixed, but allow the reference to change. But that doesn't have anything to do with the respective domains of "construction" and "interpretation." Because the text generally only expresses a function from possible worlds to outcomes, interpretation requires the assessment of the reference-yielding facts. As Euclid put it, "[W]hile the meaning of constitutional guaranties never varies, the scope of their application must expand or contract to meet the new and different conditions which are constantly coming within the field of their operation. In a changing world it is impossible that it should be otherwise. . . . [A] degree of elasticity is thus imparted, not to the meaning, but to the application of constitutional principles . . . ."

Also, I don't really understand what it means to say that it's "morally odious" that "the 14th Amendment doesn't forbid most forms of official sex discrimination." The Fourteenth Amendment is what it is. It might be morally odious not to have a constitution that forbids sex discrimination, but it seems pretty weird to contend that it's morally odious to say that the Fourteenth Amendment doesn't forbid sex discrimination, if in fact that Fourteenth Amendment doesn't forbid it.

For the record, I think the Fourteenth Amendment does forbid second-class citizenship for women, but it does so through the Privileges or Immunities Clause (the Carpenter-Chase-Bradwell theory), not the Equal Protection Clause, which is an entitlement to the "protection of the laws," i.e., law-enforcement and remedial services. See here and here. But I don't think it's morally odious to speak the truth about the Constitution. The Constitution might be morally odious, but if so, we shouldn't respond by pretending it isn't.

Blackeagle said...

"And if that's so, then originalism remains susceptible to the criticism that it leads to morally odious results (e.g., the 14th Amendment doesn't forbid most forms of official sex discrimination)"

There's a solution to this called the Equal Rights Amendment. It seems to me that it would be much better for things like this to be debated openly by the political organs of our government rather than cloaked in legalistic interpretation (of whatever ideological stripe) and decided by the courts.

markbahner said...

"Suppose---as Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment strongly suggests---that we think the original public meaning of the Equal Protection Clause does not forbid blatant, official sex discrimination by the state. (E.g., women can't be lawyers.)"

If that's the case, there would need to be another amendment to the Constitution.

markbahner said...

"And if that's so, then originalism remains susceptible to the criticism that it leads to morally odious results..."

Then change the Constitution.

"...or results that would be enormously disruptive of our legal/political order..."

Then change the Constitution. (Or change the "legal/political order".)

The Founders wrote in a mechanism to change the Constitution. Heck, they even made it possible to CHANGE the way to change the Constitution! Simply pass an amendment that changes the way amendments are made.

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