Originalist Theory and Precedent: A Public Meaning Approach

20 Pages Posted: 7 May 2018 Last revised: 4 Apr 2019

See all articles by Lawrence B. Solum

Lawrence B. Solum

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: March 29, 2018


This Article provides some introductory thoughts about the relationship between originalist constitutional theory and the proper role of precedent in the American judicial system. The development of these thoughts begins in Part I, which provides a brief introduction to originalism and its principle rival, which is sometimes called “living constitutionalism.” Part II describes the problem of precedent for originalism, emphasizing that the nature of the problem depends in part on our understanding of precedent. Part III offers some reflections on the question as to the constitutional status of the doctrine of horizontal stare decisis in the United States Supreme Court.

The Article advances two central claims. First, precedent has a role to play in the transition to originalism. Because an originalist "big bang" is not feasible, originalists should embrace a transitional role for precedent on the road from the status quo to a constitutional jurisprudence that is fully consistent with the original meaning of the constitutional text. Second, precedent has a role to play within originalist jurisprudence with respect to questions where the original meaning is not clear: in such cases, an originalist jurisprudence could incorporate a principle that the settled meaning of the clause should prevail until there is substantial consensus that another meaning is correct.

In addition, the article discusses the question whether the doctrine of stare decisis is consistent with the original public meaning of the constitutional text. Rather than offering conclusions, the point of this discussion is to outline methods and principals that should guide the originalist inquiry.

Suggested Citation

Solum, Lawrence B., Originalist Theory and Precedent: A Public Meaning Approach (March 29, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3165050 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3165050

Lawrence B. Solum (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
(434) 924-7932 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.law.virginia.edu/faculty/profile/lbs5w/2846137

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