Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Originalist Fusionism

Soon I will return to spar a bit with Tom about irony and the barbarian hordes in the thoughtful middle.

But first, here's something for the originalism debates. The success of original meaning in displacing original intent as the basis for originalist jurisprudence is well known. Original meaning is widely thought to avoid some of the methodological difficulties associated with original intention. And several theorists believe that original meaning is both more politically legitimate and truer to the activity of legal interpretation than original intention.

Yet recently, something of an intentionalist revival has come on the scene. Note that the revival is almost always inclusive of original meaning: the claim is not the mirror image of the new originalist claim--i.e., that original meaning should displace original intention completely. Instead, it is that the exclusion of original intention entirely either leaves originalism incomplete or has had some other ill effects on originalism. The new intentionalism therefore could be plausibly described as a fusionist project--bringing together considerations of original meaning and original intent as both relevant.

Exhibit A: Donald Drakeman's and Joel Alicea's work on the limits of the new originalism. What happens when originalist materials point to two or more equally persuasive original public meanings?  The authors discuss a case from 1796 -- Hylton v. United States -- which involved the constitutionality of a federal tax on carriages. The tax was resisted by Hylton, a Virginia businessman, and other Southerners who believed that it was inequitable because of the greater prevalence of carriages in the South. The case pitted Hamilton against Madison (who had argued against the tax's constitutionality) and the issue was whether this new tax should be characterized as a direct tax or an excise tax, and "what to do when the best evidence of contemporary usage points in two directions."  The arguments advanced by lawyers for and against the government proceed through all of the accepted new originalist sources -- dictionaries, ordinary or customary usage before the framing of the Constitution (of many sorts), resistance to the "foreign Lexicons" of "consolidated" as opposed to "confederated" governments, commentaries, poems, ratification materials, congressional debates, and so on. Hamilton won the day, arguing that Adam Smith's definition of a tax in The Wealth of Nations "was probably contemplated . . . by [the] Convention."  The authors note this as an example of original intentions, and they also emphasize that the three opinions in the case all focused to varying degrees on framers' intentions.  The reason for this focus is best summarized by Justice Paterson: "the natural and common, or technical and appropriate, meaning of the words, duty or excise, is not easy to ascertain."  And the authors go on to argue that recourse to original intent is a perfectly reasonable move when original meaning yields equally plausible but conflicting understandings.  The authors call it original intent as tiebreaker: "when the meaning must be sought outside the corners of the constitutional text, why not opt for answering the question 'What were the framers actually trying to accomplish in using this language?' rather than letting Samuel Johnson . . . or Hans-Georg Gadamer . . . make the final determination?" And it might be quite common that originalist materials would point to two or more plausible meanings of a particular clause. See, for example, the Establishment Clause.

Exhibit B: Steve Smith's new post at the Liberty Law blog on the shortcomings of the new originalism. Smith focuses on the new originalism's complete dissociation of original meaning and original expected applications, which he argues has had the effect of depriving originalism of some of its central political virtue. He writes: 

At bottom, after all, the basic idea was, and is—or should be—that “We the People” are entitled to govern ourselves. And for that to happen, we need a process in which we can intelligently decide whether or not to enact a constitutional provision on the basis of an understanding of what the provision will and will not do—of what its consequences will be. To be sure, the People can’t reasonably expect to foresee every little contingency and every specific application of our enactments. But if a constitutional provision ends up having far-reaching consequences that its enactors never intended—that they might have found shocking, that if foreseen might have led them not to enact the provision at all—then not only democracy but also basic rationality are thereby betrayed.

We are then being governed, in the name of the Constitution, by something that “We the People” didn’t think we were approving and perhaps never would have approved. Adopting a constitutional provision becomes less like intelligent, rational self-governance and more like throwing darts in the dark: we adopt a constitutional provision, but it’s anybody’s guess what the provision may turn out to mean.

Smith suggests at the end of the piece that it might be good for "some new movement to emerge devoted to the true criterion for constitutional interpretation," and he refers to an unpublished paper of his dealing with a "maker-meaning nexus." I haven't read the piece, but it sounds very much like a kind of originalist fusionism. One might even say that something like original expected applications (drawn from intentionalist sources) could be used as a side-constraint on original meaning. That side-constraint could operate only in cases of ambiguity (a la Alicea/Drakeman) or as a general restraint on it.

I could list other exhibits, and there are other important intentionalist champions out there, probably none more interesting that Richard Ekins (though my tentative sense, subject I hope to reader correction, is that Professor Ekins's writing has not taken a position on intentionalism in the originalism debates). But I wonder whether originalist fusionism (or originalist fusionisms of various kinds) might be on the way.


DeGirolami, Marc | Permalink