Originalism and the Good Constitution

71 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2008 Last revised: 26 Jan 2010

Date Written: March 19, 2008


In this article we argue that originalism advances the welfare of the present day citizens of the United States, because it promotes constitutional interpretations that are likely to have better consequences today than those of nonoriginalist theories. A constitution that is enacted under a strict supermajority process is likely to be desirable, because such a process has features appropriate for determining the content of entrenched laws. In other words, the desirability of a constitutional provision derives from the consensus support it gained among the enactors. Preserving the meaning of the constitution which the enactors intended preserves that beneficence for today.

We show that the enactment and amendment process of the United States Constitution largely followed an appropriate supermajoritarian template, which strongly suggests the desirability of the original constitution and its amendments. Nevertheless, we recognize that the original constitutional enactment process was defective in that it excluded African Americans and women. Accordingly, to address the issues that arise when a constitution is enacted pursuant to faulty supermajority rules, we develop a theory of supermajoritarian failure.

We demonstrate that when the supermajoritarian process for enacting a constitution has been defective (and has not been corrected), the nation faces three choices: enacting a new constitution, following the existing constitution despite its imperfections, or permitting the judiciary or some other entity to correct these imperfections outside of the supermajoritarian amendment process. We also show that, given the limited nature of the existing defects in the Constitution, following the Constitution better preserves the benefits of constitutionalism than the alternatives of enacting a new constitution or judicial correction.

Our argument does not merely explain why originalism is the preferable theory of interpretation; it also reveals the type of originalism that should be employed. Rather than attempt to determine the best originalist interpretive theory in some abstract sense, we should employ the interpretive rules that the constitutional enactors intended to apply. In that way, we use the meaning that actually passed through the supermajoritarian process. We call this form of originalism "original methods originalism."

Keywords: Constitutional Theory, Originalism, Constitutional Amendments

JEL Classification: K19

Suggested Citation

McGinnis, John and Rappaport, Michael B., Originalism and the Good Constitution (March 19, 2008). Georgetown Law Journal, Forthcoming, Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 08-05, San Diego Legal Studies Working Paper No. 08-022, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1109247

John McGinnis (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-3235 (Phone)

Michael B. Rappaport

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States

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