The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Originalism and the rule that government actors don’t change the Constitution

Placeholder while article actions load

Eric Posner responds to my post on sense/reference and accounting for change. One of his points, as usual, is to ask whether I have given up everything that makes originalism attractive or distinctive in an effort to demonstrate that it is not nutty. Under my view of originalism, he says:

[then] the dispute between originalists and non-originalists reduces almost to a question of what rhetorical flourishes we should ask supreme court justices to attach to their opinions. I say “almost” because some modern constitutional rights (for example, abortion rights) are impossible to reconcile with the sense of any provision in the Constitution. Or take the commerce clause. So, in the end, I don’t think the sense/reference argument–which is really just an argument that we give less weight to founding-era understandings than we might otherwise–saves originalism from its inability to account for change. I think Will’s argument is rather simply that originalism requires interpreters to interpret reasonably rather than unreasonably, and at least on that issue we find common ground.

A simple rule of thumb for doing originalism the way I describe it is that a text will not always work in practice the way the Framers thought it did, but if not, we need a good explanation for what the Framers got wrong (or what has changed). And that explanation has to be told specifically, at the level of the constitutional text and the rule or standard it originally expressed.

Whether that is a real limit or simply a “rhetorical flourish” probably has more to do with good faith vs. bad faith and rule-of-law v. cynical realism. Yes, it is a method that is more easily manipulated by dishonest judges who want to ignore the law. But it provides real content (read the Green article!) for those who are actually trying to figure out what instructions the Constitution contains. Posner’s concession about abortion proves that.

That leaves his second comment:

I remain puzzled why, if Will believes that constitutional change can occur through revolution, it can’t occur through “mini-revolutions,” like Ackerman’s moments or even ordinary political evolution that results in new constitutional norms but does not repudiate the existing system altogether.

At an empirical level, I think it is certainly possible for constitutional change to occur through mini-revolutions or political evolution. But there remains the question of one, whether those changes are valid under our current legal rules, and two, whether they really occurred. I would say our current legal rules honor an important relevant principle in the text: government agents are not authorized to make constitutional change. They take an oath, and it is an oath to apply “this Constitution” that we have, and that reflects an important limit on the power that we the people have delegated to them. The people may well have a right to ignore the Constitution, but the government officials who happen to be their agents do not.