A sign of originalism’s strength is the annual conference on the subject now held at San Diego Law School under the direction of Mike Rappaport. It attracts prominent originalists and, as importantly, ever more critics of originalism who now take this enterprise seriously. One of those critics, Richard Primus, has blogged about the conference in a friendly manner. Nevertheless, he is not correct in his thesis that many, if not most, originalist theorists believe that originalism has never been tried before. I have never heard such a bald assertion from my colleagues.
And that proposition would be obviously wrong about the course of constitutional law. James Madison, widely regarded as the father of the Constitution, supported what is now called originalism:
I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which the Constitution was accepted and ratified in the nation. In that sense alone, it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that not be the guide in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable exercise of its power.
A historian of constitutional law who is not himself originalist concurs that until the Progressive Era, nearly everyone appealed to originalist reasoning even if they at times disagreed to its outcome.
Recently, a three judge panel on the D.C. Circuit held in PHH Corp. v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, that the for cause removal provision for the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was unconstitutional. Rather than striking down the entire statute, the court struck the for cause removal provision, leaving the director subject to removal at the pleasure of the President.
The Bureau is an example of the newest philosophy in administrative governance, which the Democrats have pursued in Sarbanes Oxley, Obamacare, and the Dodd-Frank banking act. The idea is to maximize the independence of administrative agencies and to enhance their power. In terms of maximizing the independence of the Bureau, the Bureau does not answer to the President (that is what the for cause removal provision means) and it is funded through the Federal Reserve, so that the Congress cannot use its appropriations power to control the agency. The power of the agency is enhanced, because it is controlled by a single director rather than a bipartisan commission as virtually all independent agencies are. Needless to say, this new philosophy of governance is extremely problematic.
My co-blogger, Mike Rappaport, has opened up a discussion about the flaws of Justice Scalia’s jurisprudence. I think this is an important subject. Despite his mistakes, Justice Scalia was a great justice. But precisely because of his greatness, his errors, unless noted and analyzed, may hold back progress in the jurisprudential theories he championed.
In constitutional law, I think Justice Scalia’s greatest systematic mistake was his treatment of precedent. One of his most famous statements on the original meaning of the Constitution was one in which he argued for following precedent: “I am an originalist, not a nut.” Unfortunately, his argument for precedent here does not seemed to be based on the Constitution itself, or tied to any rule. It is merely a maxim of prudence. Overruling some cases could be too disruptive to entertain.
And to my knowledge, he never provided any further analysis of how to tell us when cases were too disruptive to be overruled and when they were not, let alone whether this was a sensible rule for evaluating precedent, even if it should be thought of as a rule. As a result, he is open to the criticism that he picked and choose among precedents he liked (or at least could live with) and those he hated.
Thus, for instance, he would never acquiesce in the fundamental right cases, like Roe, but he was willing to follow and perhaps even extend cases, like Wickard v. Filburn.
In an essay forthcoming for the Harvard Law Review, Cass Sunstein argues that Justice Antonin Scalia was in many important opinions a practitioner of living constitutionalism, that is someone who believes “the meaning of the Constitution evolves over time.” This claim is contrary to the received wisdom about Scalia. But it is consistent with a long-term project of the left—to deny that originalism is distinct either conceptually or in practice from living constitutionalism and thus to remove a barrier to the progressive transformation of the United States.
But Sunstein’s arguments are weak. First, he contends that some of Scalia’s opinions do not rely on the original meaning of provisions. But he has to acknowledge Scalia’s own response to these complaints: that as a judge he also has some duty to follow precedent. And applying precedent under neutral rules is emphatically not inconsistent with originalism. Analytically, precedent generally concerns the adjudication of the Constitution, not its meaning. Moreover, as Michael Rappaport and I have argued, the original Constitution contemplates the application of precedent.
Sunstein then downplays the full-throated originalism of District of Columbia v. Heller’s holding in favor of an individual right to hold arms at home. First, he quibbles that an originalist should have to show that the Second Amendment reference to “arms” was not limited to the firearms at the Founding. Scalia dismissed this argument as almost frivolous, as indeed it is even as matter of originalism.
The Supreme Court yesterday suggested a compromise solution to the contraceptive mandate for religiously oriented service organizations that object to contraception, and required the parties to comment on whether it met their needs. This order, made after oral argument, is very unusual. It likely reflects the fact that the Court was divided 4-4 on the question of whether the Obama’s administration previous accommodation violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Some initial responses suggest that the compromise might be welcomed by both sides. It should make us reconsider whether a Supreme Court with an equal number of justices is a bad development for the nation. A Court with nine justices would likely have come down on one side or another, embittering the side that lost in the culture wars. And when the culture war divide follows the partisan divide on the Supreme Court, the decision would only increase partisan distrust of the institution.
Greater efforts at compromise would be a hallmark of 4-4 court with such divides. Justices like to render decisions as matter of craft and institutional obligation and would tend to avoid deadlock, where possible.