Friday, June 13, 2008

And Now For Something Completely the Same

Okay, so I know I said I wouldn't be blogging again until Monday, but I just came across Larry Solum's post responding to my post on what makes the Constitution law, and what its content consists in. Solum has persuaded me that I need to stop relying on hearsay reports of his views and read his article for myself. Fair enough, but for now I just want to narrow the scope of our disagreement.

Solum and I both endorse Hartian positivism. I say that the original 1789/1791 understanding of the Constitution could be important in 10,000 years if the people who accept the Constitution in 12,008 think that the original understanding is relevant. Solum says the same thing. He also notes, correctly, that my original post used both normative and descriptive language, although in the comments, I clarified that my main point was descriptive. I certainly can't give Solum a hard time for failing to read the comments on my blog post when I haven't read his article!

I'm tempted to say something further here about a purely linguistic theory of constitutional meaning, but only with the gigantic caveat that I must read Solum's full account first. Before doing so, all I'll say here is that I don't see how a good Hartian can have any priors about language. If, in 12,008, the practice of the relevant interpretive community (either judges or government officials or perhaps even the People more broadly, depending on how one reads Hart), is to regard the Constitution as law, and to regard the meaning of that law as changing over time rather than fixed, then a good Hartian soft positivist will have to say that the meaning of the Constitution changes over time. So if---in 12,008 or today---that is the practice, then what Solum calls "the fixation thesis" is false. The Constitution's meaning will not have been fixed.

From what I understand of Solum's argument, the workaround here is to say that the meaning is fixed, but that the fixed meaning itself is unclear over an important range of cases (although clear in some nontrivial number of cases). One difficulty I have with this claim is that I don't see how even it can be a linguistic theory rather than at least partly a theory of law. For example, if we have a social practice of treating ALL constitutional meaning as potentially up for grabs, then, as a legal matter, all constitutional meaning is potentially up for grabs, regardless of what one might think about language otherwise. Perhaps it's not plausible to say that we have (or ever will have) a practice of treating all constitutional meaning as potentially up for grabs, but if so, that's a fact about legal practice, not just language.

Quite possibly I'm missing some important piece of the argument. I'll read Solum and report back in a few weeks, after the end-of-Supreme-Court-Term excitement has died down.

Posted by Mike Dorf

16 comments:

Chris said...

I think a very important part of Solum's argument connecting original meaning to current practice (at pages 8 and 132) is his argument from Article VI that current officeholders accept "this Constitution" as law, and that being bound by "this Constitution" means being bound by the historic semantic content of the Constitution. I think Solum's assumption about the meaning of "this Constitution" in Article VI is right, though it requires a bit more argument than he gives. I'm very curious what you'd say about Article VI, though.

Carl said...

One difficulty I have with this claim is that I don't see how even it can be a linguistic theory rather than at least partly a theory of law. For example, if we have a social practice of treating ALL constitutional meaning as potentially up for grabs, then, as a legal matter, all constitutional meaning is potentially up for grabs, regardless of what one might think about language otherwise.

Perhaps he thinks social practices having to do with the meanings of words are constrained (normatively speaking) by the way he thinks language works, regardless of whether you choose to call those practices "linguistic" or "legal" or something else entirely. But if this is right, then the only way to justify your view is to deny that people interpreting the Constitution are intepreting the meaning of English words, which I'm sure you'd agree is absurd.

Michael C. Dorf said...

chris: I think the "this Constitution" claim is not persuasive. If we take this idea seriously, then a government official who swears fealty to the Constitution is not bound by nonoriginalist decisions of the Supreme Court. I suppose one could say that there is a separate (prudential?) duty to abide by Supreme Court precedents, but there could be cases in which one could not simultaneously obey the original meaning and the Supreme Court's interpretation (if, e.g., original meaning requires X but Supreme Court precedent forbids X). One could still say go with original meaning in this case, on the "departmentalist" view of Jefferson, Lincoln and Meese, but given the historical debate over that position, it's hard to see how departmentalism just falls out of a view of language.

carl: I agree that it's possible to have a view in which linguistic conventions trump social ones. But there is the brute fact that the actual Rule of Recognition in the U.S. appears to accord significance to something like the "living" Constitution.

Chris said...

I don't think the reducio-ad-departmentalism argument is a good rejoinder to the Article VI argument.

First, we need to distinguish a theory about how constitutional interpretation should proceed from a view about when it should proceed. The issue for Marbury is whether courts have the authority to decide for themselves what the Constitution means, legislative determinations notwithstanding; the issue for departmentalism is whether other branches have the same power, judicial determinations notwithstanding. But those issues are distinct from the question about how interpretation should proceed. I think it's consistent with Article VI to say that sometimes it's not our place to interpret the Constitution for ourselves (e.g., if we're lower executive branch officials). But that doesn't mean that those officials who do have occasion to interpret the Constitution for themselves can ignore what "this Constitution" means. The oath argument gives at least some support to Marbury and to departmentalism, but it gives much stronger support to the view that proper interpretation is guided by "this Constitution."

Second, the reducio argument doesn't depend on anything special about originalism. Any theory of the Constitution that allows for even the theoretical possibility of courts acting unconstitutionally faces it. Indeed, the argument would work just as well even if Article VI were completely explicit in establishing originalist textualsm--say, if it said, "All officials shall be bound to obey the meaning expressed by the language of this Constitution at the time of the framing." But surely if we had such a supremacy clause, the mere puzzle about what to do were a court to act unconstitutionally wouldn’t give us warrant for ignoring the original meaning. Likewise if the best understanding of "this Constitution" is as a reference to the historically-situated text (though to show this, of course, as I say above, we’d have to do more work).

Carl said...

I agree that it's possible to have a view in which linguistic conventions trump social ones. But there is the brute fact that the actual Rule of Recognition in the U.S. appears to accord significance to something like the "living" Constitution.

What I fail to see is why you think this point makes Solum's view a move within legal theory (rather than a semantic argument that has implications for legal theory).

His point, as far as I can tell, is that semantic or interpretive norms must be consistent with the best view about how language works. To object to the living constitution on these grounds is not to involve oneself in a legal dispute (even if the move is motivated by legal ideology) and cannot be defeated simply by appeal to the fact that judges happen to decide cases in accordance with it. Instead, you need to engage his view at the level of semantics and show that it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of how language works (or explain why legal intepretation is immune from criticism on grounds that it is inconsistent with our views about meaning in general, I guess).

Chris said...

As long as I'm being a math nitpick, my comment should say reductio, not reducio. Don't know what got into me.

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