Why Originalism Cannot Work: Lessons from Logic, Scripture, and Art
8 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2017 Last revised: 15 Mar 2017
Date Written: March 5, 2017
Neil Gorsuch lauds judges who purport to “apply the law as it is, focusing backward, not forward, and looking to text, structure, and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be . . . .” It’s hard to see how such Originalism withstands scrutiny.
First, using “reasonable reader” understandings rather than speaker meaning turns language and law on their heads. Audiences effectively become the speakers in ordinary speech (since reader or audience meaning prevails), and audiences (and thus the ruled) effectively become the rulers when interpreting law (since audiences’ meaning prevails).
Second, since laws look forward to govern conduct, how can best legal practices keep such a backward focus?
Third, words (however understood by others at the time “originally” uttered) may or may not (depending on speaker and not reader meaning) signify concepts whose meanings embrace change over time. For example, the word “planet” used by a speaker before the discovery of Uranus and Neptune may or may not include further planets depending upon what the speaker meant by “planet.” (The same applies to the inclusion or exclusion of Pluto had the speaker used the word “planet” after the discovery of Pluto but before its exclusion by current science.) Unlike the “reasonable” reader of Gorsuch’s Originalism as phrased above, speakers run the gamut from reasonable to unreasonable, from informed to uninformed, and from thoughtful to thoughtless.
Fourth, to the extent a judge is principally “constrained” by a text or texts (as he may determine), by dictionaries that he chooses, and by “history” as the judge understands it, isn’t judicial activism encouraged rather than restrained? Talk of a “reasonable” reader masks the fact that there can be multiple “reasonable” conclusions of what a reasonable or unreasonable speaker meant. Is a judge not therefore left to pick definitions and applications of terms that accord with the judge’s understandings of history, understandings that may well be colored by the judge’s politics and judicial philosophy? This applies to principles as well as labels for things. Principles are also subject to multiple frames, and their terms are subject to multiple definitions therefore raising the very same questions just raised above.
Finally, such Originalism doesn’t merely fail with legal texts. It also fails when applied to other texts (including sacred texts such as the Ten Commandments) and when used to interpret art (such as “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” often attributed to Bruegel and which inspired such great ekphrasis as Auden’s “Musée Des Beaux Arts”). These further failures underscore the dysfunction of Originalism as described by Gorsuch above.
Keywords: Originalism, Neil Gorsuch, Text, Textualism, Scalia, Interpretation, Pragmatics, Speaker Meaning, Art, Painting, Bruegel, Auden, Ekphrasis, Icarus, Bible, Ten Commandments, Herod, Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln
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