It is frequently observed that the confirmation process for justices is becoming more partisan, but this characterization is incomplete, even misleading. The classic kind of congressional partisanship occurs when parties rally around or oppose policies or nominees of the sitting President, simply by virtue of his party. And if the President takes a different position or nominates a person of different views for the same role, partisans of his party tend to happily fall in line with the new world their leader has created.
But both Republicans and Democrats have views on the appropriate role of judges that transcend the vicissitudes of presidential leadership. When George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers, it was Republicans who scuttled her nomination, fearing probably correctly that she lacked the depth of understanding to maintain what they believed was a lawful jurisprudence. The jurisprudence favored by Republicans has been working itself pure for decades and now embraces originalism in constitutional law and textualism in statutory interpretation, but that accepts a relatively large role for precedent.
The Democratic judicial philosophy has also become clearer. At first, it was focused on protecting precedent in general, most importantly that of Roe v. Wade. But now that the Supreme Court under Chief Justices Rehnquist and Roberts have made many decisions, such as Citizens United, that flout Democratic policy objectives Democrats no longer exalt precedent but empathy as well as good results for their preferred minorities and “the little guy”as opposed to corporations.
The confirmation hearings on Neil Gorsuch exposed this jurisprudential chasm.
In the past, I have been critical of the claim that positivism and the rule of recognition requires originalism. Instead, my view has been that the rule of recognition allows both originalism and nonoriginalism. But I hope that my criticism of the case for originalist positivism has not obscured one very significant accomplishment of this argument. I believe that scholars such as Will Baude and Steve Sachs have made a strong argument that the Supreme Court does not claim the power to ignore the Constitution’s original meaning, unless the Supreme Court asserts that it is following precedent. (Where the original meaning…
The most important recent development in originalism has been the recognition that the Constitution was not created ex nihilo but against a pervasive legal background. As result, its interpretative context is profoundly infused by law. This recognition has led to at least four different ways in which originalism has been thickened.
First, whole clauses in the Constitution are not comprehensible without understanding a complex body of preexisting domestic law, including rules of interpretation, of which most modern readers would be oblivious. A fine example of the importance of this approach is the article Preemption by Caleb Nelson. Here Nelson shows that the phrase “anything in the law notwithstanding” which appears at the end of the Supremacy Clause in Article VI, is not just verbal filler but a familiar kind of legal signal called “non-obstante” clause. It was added to the Constitution to block a rule of interpretation that required courts to harmonize prior statutes with subsequent statutes even if on their face there was an appearance in conflict. This discovery has real bite: it indicates that there is no general presumption against preemption.
Second, it is not only domestic rules that form the background for fixing constitutional meaning. In The Law of Nations as Constitutional Law, Anthony Bellia and Brad Clark suggest that provisions, like the President’s power to send and receive ambassadors, and the Congress’s authority to declare war, can be understood only by reference to background principles of the law of nations. This article too has much contemporary relevance since it justifies application of the settled principles of the law of nations to override state law to protect such Article I and Article II powers of the federal government.
Two other examples of thickening originalism may even have more far reaching consequences because they are not focused on specific clauses, but are of general application.