Mending Fences With a Question: Is Originalism Theory Mostly Normative or Descriptive?

By Eric Segall

For several decades, Professors Randy Barnett and Larry Solum have made substantial contributions to the judicial, scholarly, and political debates over originalism (among many other topics). It is no secret that I have had my share of disputes with both Randy and Larry, much to my regret, and for which I accept my share of responsibility. This blog post is a first attempt to try and mend fences, and to raise a crucially important question about originalism (as a matter of form, I refer to all law professors discussed in this post by their first names once I identify them as law professors).

One of the many contributions made by both Randy and Larry, along with Professor Keith Whittington, to the debates over constitutional interpretation is to highlight and emphasize the distinction between constitutional interpretation and constitutional construction. The effort by judges to discover the original meaning of the constitutional text is what these scholars mean by interpretation. This is an empirical question. But sometimes even after judges discover that original meaning, the result in a case is unclear. A judge applying original meaning to situations that are not answered by that meaning is what Randy, Larry and Keith call constitutional construction.

For example, we can all agree that part of the First Amendment's original meaning focuses on freedom of speech. But many cases judges are called upon to resolve cannot be decided simply by identifying that principle. Whether or not states are permitted to ban the advertising of cigarettes or prescription drug prices, for example, cannot be resolved by acknowledging that the meaning of the First Amendment is freedom of speech. Judges must balance the right to free speech against other legitimate state interests, which is why perjury and bribery laws are obviously constitutional even though they both punish speech. Most litigated free speech cases require judges to move beyond interpretation and into construction, and the same is true for many other provisions of the Constitution, such as the Equal Protection Clause, the ban on cruel and unusual punishments, and the Second Amendment right to “bear arms.” We can bracket for now how much of a judge’s work is interpretation and how much is construction (an issue we have disagreed about in the past).

In what I think is Randy’s most recent work, he and Professor Evan Bernick have tried to set forth guidelines for judges to use in the construction zone to help them remain true to original meaning when deciding cases that fall into that zone. Their article is a noble effort but its success (or not) is not the point of this piece. Suffice it to say that much more will be written by originalists and non-originalists about how judges should operate in the construction zone. For the purposes of this post, I accept this entire framework.

Larry is probably best known for his work arguing that originalists of all stripes agree with two major premises. The meaning of the constitutional text is fixed at the time of enactment, and that meaning if ascertainable is binding on judges today despite modern conditions (leaving the role of precedent aside). For the purposes of this post, I accept both of those premises.

The question I want to pose is whether Randy and Larry’s work is generally normative, generally descriptive, or both. In other words, do they think that their originalist theories describe what judges have done or what they should do in the future. I don’t mean to suggest this question implicates a binary yes or no answer. Rather, as a general proposition, are their theories more descriptive or more normative? Based on my reading of their work, I think it is likely they disagree on the answer to this question (but even if they do not, I am confident other prominent originalists such as Professor Will Baude and Professor Mike Ramsey would provide substantially different answers to this question).

First, I will provide evidence suggesting why I think Randy and Larry may disagree over this question, and then I will suggest why I think this question is crucially important for future originalism debates.

As to Larry, a little over a year ago, he testified in front of Congress supporting the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He said the following:

Is originalism somehow outside the mainstream of American jurisprudence? The answer to that question is an emphatic “no.” The idea that judges are bound by the constitutional text is very much in the mainstream of American legal thought. For most of American history, originalism has been the predominate view of constitutional interpretation…. The Supreme Court has never claimed that it has the power to override the original meaning of the constitutional text. There are cases where the Supreme Court has departed from the text, but in those cases, the Court either attempts to disguise the true nature of its decision with an implausible reading of the text, or it simply ignores the text altogether—usually by citing precedent. Indeed, if Judge Gorsuch had come before this Committee and testified the he believed that as a Supreme Court Justice, he would have the power to override the original meaning of the constitutional text, I think it is clear that he would not be confirmed.

This testimony sounds like a descriptive account of American jurisprudence (and Larry cited some deviations or exceptions to his account, which also supports the notion that he believes originalism is the norm). I have read much but certainly not all of Larry’s work, and if I am misinformed here I apologize to him. As a fallback position, I am confident that Will and Professor Stephen E. Sachs (both of whose work I may have too hastily criticized in the past) argue that originalism is our law, at least generally speaking.

Randy’s work, however, suggests that he disagrees with Larry’s statement that “for most of American history, originalism has been the predominate view of constitutional interpretation.” First, his recent work with Evan reads as a guide to how judges should behave in the future, not a description of how they have acted in the past. Although Randy acknowledges that the use of original meaning is as old as (maybe older than) the Constitution itself, he also says the following:

It has been a mere thirty-seven years since Paul Brest invented the term “originalism,” and even fewer years since self-identified “originalists” first began developing its theory, and then researching the original meaning of the Constitution, clause-by-clause. If originalism is still in an early stage of development as a school of constitutional interpretation, understanding the proper role and scope of good-faith originalist construction has only just begun. And yet this understanding is essential to completing the originalist project. Recognizing the duty of good-faith originalist construction meets a need as urgent as that of an independent judiciary itself.

Moreover, Randy has argued that Justice Scalia was not an originalist, or at least not the kind of originalist Randy is describing. If that is true, then only one other Justice of the last fifty years (other than Justice Gorsuch) has affirmatively embraced originalism (Justice Thomas). Moreover, I think Randy would agree that going as far back as at least 1936 there have been relatively few explicitly originalist decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. But again, if I am wrong, I am confident that other originalists, such as Professor Michael Rappaport, Professor John McGinnis, and Professor Richard Kay believe that their scholarship is an effort to change how the Court decides cases, not a description of how the Court previously decided cases.

The major objection set forth to the work of so-called New Originalists like Randy, Larry and Keith (a label Randy says in his new piece that he wants to discard), is that when judges decide cases in the construction zone, they are freed from original meaning (or intent or both) and act as living originalists. Since many scholars believe that most litigated cases end up in the construction zone, these critics also argue that New Originalist theory merges with so-called living constitutionalism. The objective of Randy’s latest work is to solve what he says is a gap in the literature about how judges should act in the construction zone by suggesting that they try in good faith to find the original spirit of the text in question and the Constitution as a whole.

           Why is the distinction between normative and descriptive originalist theory so important? The answer to that question, maybe surprisingly, is intertwined with a famous statement made by Justice Elena Kagan at her confirmation hearing. In responding to a question from Senator Leahy, she said the following: “Sometimes they (the framers) laid down very specific rules. Sometimes they laid down broad principles. Either way, we apply what they tried to do…In that way, we are all originalists.” It is clear from the rest of her testimony that what she meant was that, where the Constitution is clear, the Justices are bound by that clarity, but where it is general, judges will have much more work to do. This description of judging is quite close to the interpretation/construction distinction described and/or prescribed by Randy, Larry and Keith.

But here’s the conundrum. If judges are already deciding cases in an originalist fashion, as Larry, Justice Kagan and others seem to suggest, then why the huge political and academic outcry for President Trump (really Leonard Leo on leave from the Federalist Society) to appoint originalist judges as if that would be a serious break from tradition? On the other hand, that outcry makes sense if, as Randy and others suggest, judges need new tools to work in the construction zone because traditionally originalism has not been our law. But if Randy is wrong and judges have been doing this all along, as Larry seemed to argue in his congressional testimony, then the difference between these new Trump-appointed judges and the judges of the last, say 100 years, is one only of result, not method. That’s quite a big difference.

This puzzle is important to my work because I am trying to ascertain originalism’s attraction to such a large and diverse group of scholars, including liberals like Jack Balkin and many new and productive academics. Traditional originalists critiqued what they viewed as a long history of non-originalist decision-making, and I assume Randy and Evan are part of that movement, just offering different tools. Others seem to be arguing originalism is already baked into how judges decide cases. Someone must be right, and someone must be wrong about our past, and I think the more accurate answer has major implications for the originalist debates in courts, law reviews, and confirmation hearings. Do judges just need to do more of what they have been doing all along or do they need to change, as Randy and others argue? 

              I hope Randy and Larry, as well as the other originalists mentioned in this post, will take these questions seriously and in the spirit with which they are intended; a spirit of reconciliation and an attempt to move on from at least some of the tired debates of the past.