The Present Public Meaning Approach to Constitutional Interpretation

72 Pages Posted: 24 May 2022 Last revised: 27 Apr 2023

See all articles by Michael L. Smith

Michael L. Smith

St. Mary's University School of Law

Date Written: May 11, 2022

Abstract

Originalists often respond to critics by claiming that originalism is worth pursuing because there are no feasible alternatives. The thinking goes that even the most scathing critiques of originalism ultimately fall flat if critics fail to propose preferable alternative to originalism. After all, it takes a theory to beat a theory.

This Article proposes an alternate theory. While most variations of originalism require that the Constitution be interpreted based on its original public meaning, this Article proposes that the Constitution should instead be interpreted based on its present public meaning. This straightforward alternative has attracted surprisingly little discussion in the originalist literature until Frederick Schauer’s recent article, Unoriginal Textualism, argued for the theory’s feasibility. While Schauer devotes much of his article to the claim that the present public meaning approach is theoretically possible, his discussion of why such an approach is preferable to originalism is limited.

This Article picks up where Schauer leaves off and argues that the present public meaning approach is preferable to originalism. The present public meaning approach to constitutional interpretation is a better means of constraining judges, and leads to judicial decisionmaking that is more transparent and predictable. It also better achieves goals of democratic legitimacy by taking into account modern views on indeterminate, value-laden language in the Constitution and its amendments and by accounting for significant expansions in the right to vote since the founding. Additionally, the present public meaning approach avoids significant implementation obstacles originalism faces, and is more likely to lead to desirable results by better accounting for present circumstances.

This Article does not contend that the present public meaning approach is the best approach to constitutional interpretation. But it is still preferable to originalism—avoiding numerous shortcomings and critiques against originalist methodology, and preferable in light of many normative considerations that originalists claim to honor. Originalists must therefore take the present public meaning approach seriously when defending their theories of constitutional interpretation.

Suggested Citation

Smith, Michael L., The Present Public Meaning Approach to Constitutional Interpretation (May 11, 2022). 89 Tennessee Law Review 885 (2023), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4106823

Michael L. Smith (Contact Author)

St. Mary's University School of Law ( email )

One Camino Santa Maria St
San Antonio, TX 78228
United States

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