50 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2022
Date Written: August 31, 2022
Constitutional traditionalism is rising. From due process to free speech, religious liberty, the right to keep and bear arms, and more, the Court made clear in its 2021 term that it will follow a method that is guided by “tradition.”
This paper is in part an exercise in naming: the Court’s 2021 body of work is, in fact, thoroughly traditionalist. It is therefore a propitious moment to explain just what traditionalism entails. After summarizing the basic features of traditionalism in some of my prior work and identifying them in the Court’s 2021 term decisions, this paper situates these recent examples of traditionalism within this larger, longstanding interpretive method. Contrary to many claims, there is little that is entirely new or unexpected, other than the Court’s more explicit embrace of traditionalism this term than in the past. The paper then distinguishes traditionalism from originalism, focusing especially on what some originalists have called “liquidation.” Finally, it raises and considers one comparatively straightforward and two more difficult problems for traditionalism: (a) the problem of selecting the operative “level of generality” for any tradition; (b) the problem of tradition’s moral justification, offering possibilities based on the connection between enduring practices and (1) human desires, (2) virtues or legal excellences, or (3) natural law determinations; and (c) the problem of traditionalism’s politics.
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