Happy 40th Birthday Originalism!

June 1st, 2012

Joel Alicia has this piece in Policy Review:

 Only a generation removed from the constitutional revisions of the Warren and Burger Courts, originalism has not only established itself as a respectable interpretive theory in the federal judiciary, but it has also been taken up by some members of Congress. Even a major-party presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, has pledged that as president he would interpret the Constitution using originalism. Such a state of affairs was unthinkable decades ago when, as Judge Robert Bork characterized the conventional wisdom of the era, lawyers came to “expect that the nature of the Constitution [would] change, often quite dramatically, as the personnel of the Supreme Court change[d].”

But it was precisely because of an article by then-Professor Bork that so much has changed and that Senator Lee’s pledge was possible. Bork’s 1971 article in the Indiana Law Journal, “Neutral Principles and Some First Amendment Problems,” is widely recognized as having launched modern originalist theory. While Professor Noah Feldman has underlined the role Justice Hugo Black played in the development of modern originalism, it was not until Bork’s article in 1971 that the modern originalist movement took flight.

It’s interesting that originalism did not really pick up steam until the GOP, through the impassioned work of Attorney General of Ed Meese, advocated it.

It was around this time in the mid-1980s that Edwin Meese, the attorney general, began publicly advocating originalism in a series of lectures and articles. Combined with the Reagan administration’s laser-like focus on confirming suitable judges to the federal bench, Meese’s speeches showed that originalism had catapulted itself from the pages of law review articles to become the default interpretive theory of the Republican Party.

One of the judges confirmed during this time was Scalia, who stepped in to play a major role in the scholarly debates of the 1980s. Brest and Powell’s criticisms presupposed that originalism was based on the original intentions of the Framers, i.e., how the Framers believed the Constitution would be interpreted in the future. If this premise was removed, Brest and Powell’s criticisms carried much less force. Scalia proposed a theoretical shift: “Change the label from the Doctrine of Original Intent to the Doctrine of Original Meaning.” Scalia argued that originalism should not focus on how the Framers thought the Constitution would be interpreted. After all, those expectations were not part of the text that was ratified, and determining those intentions was speculative. What governed was the original meaning of the text, the meaning that the public at large attached to the words of a constitutional provision when it was ratified. A scholar or judge should use all available sources to understand how the words of a provision were defined at a particular moment in history, not to understand how the Framers expected it would be defined by future interpreters.