Characterizing Constitutional Inputs

79 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2017 Last revised: 28 Jul 2017

See all articles by Michael Coenen

Michael Coenen

Seton Hall University Law School

Date Written: July 27, 2017


Constitutional doctrine frequently employs tests that operate on abstract conceptual inputs rather than objectively identifiable facts. Consider some examples: Substantive due process doctrine commands attention to whether a violated “right” qualifies as fundamental or non-fundamental; commerce clause doctrine commands attention to whether a regulated “activity” qualifies as economic or non-economic; the strict-scrutiny test commands attention to whether a relevant “government interest” qualifies as compelling or non-compelling; and so forth. These sorts of decision rules call for an evaluation of variables whose scope, content, and character are frequently up for debate, thereby requiring courts to characterize constitutional inputs as a precondition to reaching constitutional results. To determine whether the government has violated a “fundamental right,” courts must first characterize the relevant “right” whose “fundamentality” is at issue. To determine whether a congressional enactment regulates an “economic activity,” courts must first characterize the relevant “activity” whose “economic” nature must be scrutinized. To determine whether a challenged law pursues a “compelling government interest,” courts must first characterize the relevant “government interest” whose importance is to be assessed. Tests of this sort thus implicate not just the familiar judicial challenge of evaluating a given variable by reference to an established doctrinal criterion, but also the less-familiar (and often un-noticed) challenge of extracting from a fact pattern an operative characterization of the variable to be evaluated.

This Article examines these “input-characterization” problems as a general challenge of constitutional decision-making. The Article makes three contributions: First, the Article demonstrates the widespread presence of characterization problems within constitutional law, highlighting both the broad range of contexts in which these problems arise and the limited amount of attention they have thus far generated. Second, the Article explores the possibility of avoiding input-characterization problems through the re-formulation of constitutional decision-rules, considering in particular the tradeoffs implicated by the replacement of “characterization-dependent” decision rules with “characterization-resistant” alternatives. Finally, the Article works through the various methods by which courts might confront characterization problems on their own terms, asking whether there exist reliable and predictable means of selecting an authoritative input characterization from the many possibilities that the facts might afford. In sum, this analysis reveals that input-characterization problems are neither easily avoidable nor easily solvable, thus raising critical questions regarding the determinacy and coherence of the doctrine writ large.

Suggested Citation

Coenen, Michael, Characterizing Constitutional Inputs (July 27, 2017). Duke Law Journal, Vol. 67, 2017, Available at SSRN:

Michael Coenen (Contact Author)

Seton Hall University Law School ( email )

1109 Raymond Blvd.
Newark, NJ 07102
United States

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