Originalism: Standard and Procedure

54 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2021 Last revised: 11 Jan 2022

Date Written: March 25, 2021


Originalism is often promoted as a better way of getting constitutional answers. That claim leads to disappointment when the answers prove hard to find. To borrow a distinction from philosophy, originalism is better understood as a standard, not a decision procedure. It offers an account of what makes right constitutional answers right. What it doesn’t offer, and shouldn’t be blamed for failing to offer, is a step-by-step procedure for finding them.

Distinguishing standards from decision procedures explains originalism’s tolerance for uncertainty about history or its application; justifies the creation of certain kinds of judicial doctrines (though not others); clarifies longstanding battles over interpretation and construction; identifies both limits and strengths for the theory’s normative defenders; and gives us a better picture of originalism’s use in practice.

It would be nice if the correct constitutional theory also gave us easy answers in contested cases. But you can’t have everything. Knowing the right standard might not lead us to those answers, but it still might be worth knowing all the same.

Keywords: originalism, constitutional law, constitutional theory, interpretation, history, standards, decision procedures, philosophy, uncertainty

JEL Classification: K1, K10, K19

Suggested Citation

Sachs, Stephen E., Originalism: Standard and Procedure (March 25, 2021). Harvard Law Review, Vol. 135, pp. 777-830 (2022), Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2021-27, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3812715

Stephen E. Sachs (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-5009 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://hls.harvard.edu/faculty/directory/11417/Sachs

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