Sutton on Originalism

November 6th, 2014

In his opinion, finding that the original meaning of the 14th Amendment does not include a right to same-sex marriage, Judge Sutton offers a pithy but deep understanding of originalism, comparing it to a contract.

Original meaning. All Justices, past and present, start their assessment of a case about the meaning of a constitutional provision by looking at how the provision was understood by the people who ratified it. If we think of the Constitution as a covenant between the governed and the governors, between the people and their political leaders, it is easy to appreciate the force of this basic norm of constitutional interpretation—that the originally understood meaning of the charter generally will be the lasting meaning of the charter. When two individuals sign a contract to sell a house, no one thinks that, years down the road, one party to the contract may change the terms of the deal. That is why the parties put the agreement in writing and signed it publicly—to prevent changed perceptions and needs from changing the guarantees in the agreement. So it normally goes with the Constitution: The written charter cements the limitations on government into an unbending bulwark, not a vane alterable whenever alterations occur—unless and until the people, like contracting parties, choose to change the contract through the agreed-upon mechanisms for doing so. See U.S. Const. art. V. If American lawyers in all manner of settings still invoke the original meaning of Magna Carta, a Charter for England in 1215, surely it is not too much to ask that they (and we) take seriously the original meaning of the United States Constitution, a Charter for this country in 1789. Any other approach, too lightly followed, converts federal judges from interpreters of the document into newly commissioned authors of it.

He also provides a handy summary of leading Supreme Court decisions that relied on originalism:

Many precedents gauging individual rights and national power, leading to all manner of outcomes, confirm the import of original meaning in legal debates. See, e.g., Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 173–80 (1803); McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 401–25 (1819); Legal Tender Cases, 79 U.S. 457, 536–38 (1870); Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, 110–39 (1926); INS v. Chadha, 462 U.S. 919, 944–59 (1983); Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc., 514 U.S. 211, 218–25 (1995); Washington v. Glucksburg, 521 U.S. 702, 710–19 (1997); Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 42–50 (2004); Boumediene v. Bush, 553 U.S. 723, 739–46 (2008); Giles v. California, 554 U.S. 353, 358–61 (2008); District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 576–600 (2008).

Before finding that this was an easy case under originalism, Sutton acknowledged that this is often not the case.

In trying to figure out the original meaning of a provision, it is fair to say, the line between interpretation and evolution blurs from time to time. That is an occupational hazard for judges when it comes to old or generally worded provisions. Yet that knotty problem does not confront us. Yes, the Fourteenth Amendment is old; the people ratified it in 1868. And yes, it is generally worded; it says: “[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Nobody in this case, however, argues that the people who adopted the Fourteenth Amendment understood it to require the States to change the definition of marriage.