There’s no originalist consensus, but that’s okay

January 23

I appreciate co-blogger David Bernstein’s response to my post on originalism and precedent.  He raises an interesting and recurring question for most theories of precedent — what do you do when the misinterpretation of one clause disrupts the constitutional balance in ways that affect other clauses?

I think this is a very interesting question to which there is no consensus answer.  Now I will explain why I don’t regard it as a problem:  all of the plausible answers seem perfectly reasonable.

– You could overrule the precedent, if your theory of precedent permits it.

– Or you could keep the precedent, but make compensating adjustments, if you know how to make them.

– Or if you have a strong theory of precedent and are skeptical of the wisdom of compensating adjustments, you could let things be, and just accept that a consequence of your views is that things get screwed up sometimes.  (For an example of an originalist arguing that precedents could be left in place, but limited, see this post by Michael Ramsey.)

There’s a similar range of possibilities for dealing with the possibility that overruling a precedent would create “chaos.”

– You could overrule the precedent anyway, if your theory of precedent permits it.

– Or you could deal with the precedent in some gradualist fashion, maybe chipping away at it in a series of decisions that allow the political branches to adjust; maybe overruling it but announcing a stay of judgment for some period of time (which the Court has done on occasion before).

– Or you could just keep the precedent because overruling it will cause chaos, and accept that a consequence of precedent is that sometimes you keep bad precedents.

Again, none of these views pose a particular problem for originalism.  An originalist (or non-originalist) might strongly prefer some of them over others, but there’s nothing about the range of options that necessarily boxes you into something problematic.

At a more general level, (and I’m not accusing David of this) I think non-originalists sometimes expect originalism to have some sort of catechism that lays out “the originalist position” on a bunch of these issues.  But originalism is an interpretive method, not a party platform, and on many of these issues there is no such consensus.

One strength of originalism is that it could potentially provide answers, if the original meaning of the Constitution turns out to actually speak to these questions.  But it’s also possible that these are not questions that the Constitution decides for us, in which case originalism leaves us to our own devices.

Will Baude is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, where he teaches constitutional law and federal courts. His recent articles include Rethinking the Federal Eminent Domain Power, (Yale Law Journal, 2013), and Beyond DOMA: State Choice of Law in Federal Statutes, (Stanford Law Review, 2012).
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Eugene Volokh | January 23