The Gravitational Force of Originalism

25 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2013 Last revised: 7 Dec 2013

Date Written: February 15, 2013


In part I of this essay, prepared for the Fordham conference on “The New Originalism and Constitutional Law,” I describe four aspects of the New Originalism: (1) The New Originalism is about identifying the original public meaning of the Constitution rather than the original framers intent; (2) The interpretive activity of identifying the original public meaning of the text is a purely descriptive empirical inquiry; (3) But there is also a normative tenet of the New Originalism that contends that the original public meaning of the text should be followed; (4) Distinguishing between the activities of interpretation and construction identifies the limit of the New Originalism, which is only a theory of interpretation. In part II, I then discusses how originalism can influence the outcome of such cases as D.C. v. Heller, McDonald v. Chicago, and NFIB v. Sebelius. I suggest that, so long as there are justices who accept the relevance of original meaning, originalism can exert a kind of “gravitational force” on legal doctrine even when, as in McDonald and ​NFIB​, the original meaning of the Constitution appears not to be the basis of a judicial decision.

Keywords: Originalism, Supreme Court, Congress, Commerce Clause

JEL Classification: K00, K30, K39

Suggested Citation

Barnett, Randy E., The Gravitational Force of Originalism (February 15, 2013). Fordham Law Review, Vol. 82, pp. 411-432, 2013, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 13-010, Available at SSRN:

Randy E. Barnett (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9936 (Phone)


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