Originalism class 4: Brown

Will says that he’s not sure whether Brown is right or wrong as a matter of original meaning, and even if it is wrong, this kind of problem–a popular case being inconsistent with an interpretive theory–is not unique to originalism. Moreover, it is a mistake to judge an interpretive theory by its moral goodness, he says.

The last point is in tension with the first, and the first point is in tension with one of originalism’s supposed advantages–that it produces determinate results. But time and again, the original meaning turns out to be obscure, and so either courts must be willing to continually reevaluate precedents as new historical research is produced (which is unacceptable from the standpoint of judicial economy and legal stability) or the original meaning loses its ability to exert influence on legal outcomes as precedent accumulates. Will says in response to Klarman’s criticisms of McConnell that it’s really hard to determine what the original meaning of the 14th Amendment is, and new evidence and analysis constantly appear more than a century later, so maybe eventually we’ll agree that Brown is consistent with the original understanding after all. But this is a defect of originalism, not a virtue.

An interpretive method that can’t account for Brown, or treats it as an epicycle, is ¬†useless. It provides no guidance to people as they decide what laws to pass and how to plan their lives, or any guidance to judges who seek conscientiously to extend the constitutional tradition.

And this is why originalism must be based on moral considerations, as all constitutional theories must be–at least, if the goal is to persuade justices to overturn precedents and citizens and politicians to support those goals. A successful constitutional theory must appeal to institutional values that people (or enough people) share; otherwise, it is a purely theoretical construct with no practical relevance. (Originalism has done as well as it has because of the support it receives from conservatives and libertarians, who find the quasi-libertarian political culture of the founding era appealing.)

I’m not sure how otherwise one derives a justification for an interpretive methodology. From some readings and some of Will’s comments, I see two possibilities. First, originalism is right just because Americans are originalists. I don’t think that’s true. Americans support Brown and will continue to do so regardless of what historians eventually show.

Second, originalism is right because we are bound by a written constitution; it’s simply the consequence of a larger commitment to constitutionalism. But the constitution in practice is just what the various branches of government agree are the rules of the game at any given time. In their hands, the founding-era document is little more than a rhetorical flourish, used strategically. That is our political culture, one that happens to require ritual obeisance to the founders. Thus would the Roman priests examine the entrails of birds in preparation for a great political event. How long would one of those priests have lasted if he really thought he could discover in those entrails the will of the gods?