Integrating Normative and Descriptive Constitutional Theory: The Case of Original Meaning

59 Pages Posted: 9 Feb 2013 Last revised: 2 Apr 2013

Date Written: January 1, 1997

Abstract

According to the strict form of originalism, the Constitution derives its authority from its ratification during particular periods in American history. Under this view, any departure from the understandings of those discrete periods robs constitutional interpretation of its claim to legitimacy. The political theory underlying strict originalism is a form of social contract theory: unelected judges may displace legislative decisions in the name of the Constitution, but only because the Constitution is a social contract to which consent was validly given through ratification.

Although there are very few strict originalists, virtually all practitioners of and commentators on constitutional law accept that original meaning has some relevance to constitutional interpretation. Most, if not all, of us are what Paul Brest has called "moderate" originalists; we are interested in "the framers' intent on a relatively abstract level of generality.

Keywords: originalist, constitutional theory, interpretation, intent, moderate, framers

Suggested Citation

Dorf, Michael C., Integrating Normative and Descriptive Constitutional Theory: The Case of Original Meaning (January 1, 1997). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 85, No. 1765, 1996-1997; Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-32. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2213841 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2213841

Michael C. Dorf (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/faculty/bio.cfm?id=333

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