Harm-Avoider Constitutionalism

66 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2020 Last revised: 1 Nov 2021

See all articles by Aaron Tang

Aaron Tang

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: September 8, 2020


How does the Supreme Court actually decide difficult questions of constitutional law? Standard accounts point to a range of interpretive approaches such as originalism, common law constitutionalism, political process theory, interest-balancing, and constitutional pluralism. And once the list of commonly used interpretive approaches is set, normative debates often follow over which is best.

In this Article, I argue that another theory belongs on the list. In a surprising number of cases spanning a range of doctrinal areas such as Congress’s Article I power, equal protection, substantive due process, presidential immunity, and the dormant commerce clause, the Court has decided hard constitutional questions using a kind of argument that has evaded scholarly attention thus far. Rather than relying on original meaning, precedent, or other common tools for discerning the Constitution’s proper application, the Court has decided these cases on the basis of a raw, second-order consideration: which group, if the Court rules against it, would be better able to avoid the harm it would suffer? And in each case, the Supreme Court has consciously ruled against the best harm-avoider, trusting in that group’s superior ability to protect its interests outside the courts. I call this approach “harm-avoider constitutionalism.”

This Article uncovers harm-avoider constitutionalism as a distinct — and powerful — theory by which the Supreme Court decides hard cases. To be sure, the theory does not help in every case. But where it does, harm-avoider constitutionalism furthers significant virtues. It curbs judicial partisanship. It bolsters the Court’s legitimacy by ensuring that losing groups have more effective responses to their defeats than attacking the Court. It encourages litigants to identify solutions rather than belittle their opponents. And it enables the Court to pursue an important, yet under-looked objective in hard cases: to do the least harm possible.

Keywords: constitutional law, constitutional theory, supreme court, federal courts, law and economics, constitutional interpretation

Suggested Citation

Tang, Aaron, Harm-Avoider Constitutionalism (September 8, 2020). 109 Calif. L. Rev. 1847 (2021), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3689259 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3689259

Aaron Tang (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics