Constitutional Law in an Age of Alternative Facts
William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-371
75 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2017 Last revised: 4 Jun 2018
Date Written: September 6, 2017
Objective facts – while perhaps always elusive – are now an endangered species. A mix of digital speed, social media, fractured news, and party polarization has led to what some call a “post truth” society: a culture where what is true matters less than what we want to be true. At the same moment in time when “alternative facts” reign supreme, we have also anchored our constitutional law in general observations about the way the world works. Do violent video games harm child brain development? Is voter fraud common? Is a “partial birth abortion” ever medically necessary? Judicial pronouncements on questions like these are common, and – perhaps more importantly – they are being briefed by sophisticated litigants who know how to grow the factual dimensions of their case in order to achieve the constitutional change that they want.
The combination of these two forces – fact-heavy constitutional law in an environment where facts are easy to manipulate – is cause for serious concern. This article explores what is new and worrisome about fact-finding today, and it identifies constitutional disputes loaded with convenient but false claims. To remedy the problem, we must empower courts to proactively guard against alternative facts. This means courts should push back on blanket calls for deference to the legislative record. Instead I suggest re-focusing the standards of review in constitutional law to encourage fact-checking. It turns out some factual claims can be debunked with relative ease and I encourage deference when lower courts rise above the fray and do just that.
Keywords: fact, Constitution, constitutional, amicus, legislative fact, social fact, fact-finding
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