Over at his blog, Tim Sandefur asks some questions about my new book with John McGinnis, Originalism and the Good Constitution. While I can’t answer all of his questions in a single post, let me address his first two basic points. Start with his first point:
What, then, do we do about existing precedent that diverges from the original meaning? A die hard Originalist might say, Jettison this precedent. But Rappaport and McGinnis don’t. They argue that where precedent diverges from the original meaning, we should continue to follow such precedent if overruling it would impose “enormous costs,” and where the existing precedent is “entrenched,” meaning that a strong consensus supports that precedent today.
My question is this: this escape hatch from the apparent requirements of Originalism is not based on anything intrinsic to the Originalist commitment. It’s ordinary cost-benefit analysis, and notably contemporary in its focus. What connection is there between the Originalist notion of fidelity to the original language, and this apparent permission to escape from that commitment?
In our view, the original meaning of the Constitution allows precedent. It does not, for the most part, specify what that precedent is. Instead, it treats precedent rules as a matter of common law that is revisable by congressional statute. Since precedent rules can be enacted by statute, we discuss what we believe would be the best precedent rules based on our preferred normative approach – welfare consequentialism (a form of utilitarianism). We do not justify this precedent approach based on the Framers’ values, but there is no need to do so. Ordinary legislation today does not have to follow the Framers’ view about what is good legislation (so long as it is constitutional). Similarly, precedent rules do not have to follow the Framers’ view about precedent.