Reforming Variable Vagueness

72 Pages Posted: 13 May 2020 Last revised: 24 Feb 2022

See all articles by Daniel B. Rice

Daniel B. Rice

University of Arkansas - School of Law

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 study of tiered vagueness reveals an enterprise awash with fluidity. By articulating 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 broad constitutional pronouncements for the sole purpose of choosing a case-specific 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 2021), Available at SSRN:

Daniel B. Rice (Contact Author)

University of Arkansas - School of Law ( email )

260 Waterman Hall
Fayetteville, AR 72701
United States

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics