Originalism class 8: accounting for change

Will argues that the distinction between sense and reference rescues originalism from the charge that it can’t account for change. This strikes me as an interesting but odd argument. Odd because some defenders of originalism tout it precisely because it cannot account for change. If change is necessary, then Article V (or, as Will cheerfully observes, revolution) provides the mechanism.

Moreover, one of the chief normative justifications for originalism is that it binds judges. In making this argument, Scalia cites the “reference” of the cruel and unusual punishment clause–the practice of capital punishment at the time shows that the ratifiers could not have been thinking about (“referring to”) the death penalty when they wrote down that clause. Thus, we know that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual. I don’t think Scalia made a philosophical mistake: the reference is obviously relevant when we are trying to figure out sense (or the “test,” as Will puts it) even if it does not exhaust the meaning. If following Will, we agree that reference should be discounted or ignored, then originalism loses some of its determinateness. Indeed, I don’t see the founding-era “sense” of “cruel and unusual” as being any different from what non-originalists think it should mean.

Well maybe this doesn’t matter, and if it doesn’t, 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. But 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.