Originalism: Standard and Procedure
60 Pages Posted: 29 Apr 2021
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 how originalists can tolerate substantial 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 very nice if the correct constitutional theory 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: Suggested Citation