Originalism: The Primary Canon of State Constitutional Interpretation

68 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2016 Last revised: 11 Jun 2017

Date Written: August 22, 2016


Given the reach of federal constitutional law and the attention the topic garners in law reviews, law schools, and general popular discourse, a certain degree of federal-centricity is understandable in most scholarly discourse about originalism. Nevertheless, the near universal tendency of scholars to think only about the U.S. Constitution when debating originalism undermines claims by both proponents and opponents of originalism by failing to account for the massive body of originalist case law in state constitutional interpretation.

This article seeks to broaden the field of discussion about originalism by demonstrating that 38 of 50 state courts of last resort have consistently been invoking originalism, since as early as 1804. Indeed, not only have these courts expressly and consistently invoked originalism during this time period, but they also identified originalism as the primary canon of constitutional interpretation. In other words, for this super majority, originalism is supposed to be the goal of state constitutional interpretation. This is not to say that state courts are always originalist when interpreting their constitutions or that they always get a question of original meaning correct. Instead, the importance of this body of case law is for the broader debates about originalism in general. And although a full exploration of the impact of state constitutional originalism is beyond the scope of this article, there are important implications, potentially impacting topics from the traditional Bork-Scalia creation narrative of originalism, to more recent predictions about originalism’s impending demise, to assertions about originalism being partisan, to recent scholarship about originalism as law.

Keywords: constitutional law, originalism, interpretation, canon, maxim, state constitutional law, state constitution

Suggested Citation

Christiansen, Jeremy, Originalism: The Primary Canon of State Constitutional Interpretation (August 22, 2016). 15 Geo. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 341 (2017), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2827872

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