Reforming Variable Vagueness

68 Pages Posted: 13 May 2020

See all articles by Daniel B. Rice

Daniel B. Rice

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: April 25, 2020


Like much of constitutional law, the Supreme Court’s void-for-vagueness doctrine employs a system of tiered scrutiny. This decades-old framework imposes differential demands of clarity, depending on the type of enactment under review. But the distinctive workings of variable vagueness remain largely obscure to courts and scholars alike. This Article seeks to illuminate this integral facet of constitutional litigation. My comprehensive survey of tiered vagueness reveals an enterprise awash with fluidity. By mandating such a raw and complex decisional structure—and failing to police its development in the ensuing years—the Court has unsettled a doctrine whose entire purpose is to maximize legal clarity. This Article lays bare the resulting methodological rot and charts a path toward doctrinal reconstruction.

The present variability framework has revealed itself to be little more than a taxonomic misadventure, relying as it does on crude and equivocal proxy tests. Nor has the Court provided any guidance on how the canonical variability factors interact. In addition, the framework’s non-exhaustive quality has enabled courts to spin off novel low-scrutiny contexts—ones that other decisions have deemed flatly insusceptible to vagueness challenges. And the current system invites courts to issue unsolicited constitutional pronouncements for the sole purpose of choosing a level of scrutiny. I propose a drastically simplified model that focuses directly on the severity of applicable penalties. Having selected a presumptive level of scrutiny on this basis, courts should then tailor the “ordinary intelligence” inquiry to account for any pertinent attributes shared by the regulated class—for example, children’s diminished legal acumen.

Keywords: constitutional law, vagueness, tiers of scrutiny, precedent, judicial decisionmaking, Supreme Court

JEL Classification: K10, K40

Suggested Citation

Rice, Daniel B., Reforming Variable Vagueness (April 25, 2020). University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 23 (Forthcoming). Available at SSRN:

Daniel B. Rice (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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