Reconciling Originalism and Precedent

54 Pages Posted: 7 May 2009

Date Written: May 5, 2009


Originalism is often thought, by both its advocates and its critics, to be inconsistent with precedent. This Article challenges this common view of originalism and argues that nothing in the Constitution forbids judges from following precedent. First, the Constitution as a matter of judicial power incorporates a minimal notion of precedent. Second, the Constitution treats precedent as a matter of federal common law that it is revisable by congressional statute. Thus, the courts in the first instance and Congress ultimately have significant discretion over what precedent rules should be adopted.

Having established that the original meaning of the Constitution does not forbid precedent, the next question is: what is the normatively best approach to precedent under originalism? As consequentialists, we argue that precedent doctrine should consist of rules that require precedent to be followed when doing so would produce net benefits and that require original meaning to be applied instead of precedent in other cases We then balance these benefits of following the original meaning with the benefits of following precedent. This Article, while not offering a full precedent doctrine, does recommend three specific precedent rules. First, precedent should be followed when it is necessary to avoid imposing enormous costs. Second, precedent should be followed when it is entrenched-when the precedent enjoys strong support that is comparable to that enjoyed by a constitutional amendment. Third, precedent should be followed when it corrects the results of a failure in the original super majoritarian process of making the Constitution, such as the exclusion of African Americans.

Keywords: pecedent, originalism, constitutional theory

JEL Classification: K19

Suggested Citation

McGinnis, John and Rappaport, Michael B., Reconciling Originalism and Precedent (May 5, 2009). Northwestern University Law Review, Vol. 103, No. 2, 2009, Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 09-12, San Diego Legal Studies Paper No. 09-008, Available at SSRN:

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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