Social Facts, Constitutional Interpretation, and the Rule of Recognition

THE RULE OF RECOGNITION AND THE U.S. CONSTITUTION, Matthew D. Adler & Kenneth Einar Himma, eds., Oxford U. Press, 2009

U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-02

38 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2009 Last revised: 21 Dec 2014

Date Written: January 12, 2009


This essay is a chapter in a volume that examines constitutional law in the United States through the lens of H.L.A. Hart's "rule of recognition" model of a legal system. My chapter focuses on a feature of constitutional practice that has been rarely examined: how jurists and scholars argue about interpretive methods. Although a vast body of scholarship provides arguments for or against various interpretive methods -- such as textualism, originalism, "living constitutionalism," structure-and-relationship reasoning, representation reinforcement, minimalism, and so forth -- very little scholarship shifts to the meta-level and asks: What are the considerations that jurists and scholars bring to bear in arguing that one or another interpretive method is legally favored? And can we "make sense" of this body of argument? Is there a model of legal discourse that both accurately describes how U.S. jurists and scholars actually argue about interpretive methods, and that vindicates this discourse (in the sense of seeing these actors as making valid arguments)?

I find that Hart's rule-of-recognition model fails to describe or vindicate how U.S. jurists and scholars argue about interpretive methods. The problem, in a nutshell, is that Hart sees legal argument as asserting or presupposing the social fact of contemporary official acceptance of a rule of recognition. By contrast, jurists and scholars typically point to social facts other than contemporary official acceptance in arguing for the legal status of an interpretive method -- for example, the fact that the method is supported by Framers' intent, or by U.S. culture and tradition, or by precedent. Further, jurists and scholars very often argue that some interpretive method is legally favored even though the method is controversial. On Hart's model, such a claim is problematic -- because, on his model, the content of the rule of recognition is not controversial, but rather a matter of consensus among officials.

The upshot may just be that Hart's model is a failure. However, another possibility is to adopt an "error theory" of U.S. constitutional discourse. It may perhaps be the case that U.S. jurists and scholars often make claims for the favorable legal status of some interpretive method that are inconsistent with the best understanding of the nature of law.

Keywords: Constitutional law, jurisprudence, H.L.A. Hart, interpretive methods, legal culture, error theory

Suggested Citation

Adler, Matthew D., Social Facts, Constitutional Interpretation, and the Rule of Recognition (January 12, 2009). U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-02; U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 09-02. Available at SSRN:

Matthew D. Adler (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics