Missing Pieces: Gaps in the Record of Early American Decisional Law

Duke Law Journal Online (forthcoming)

24 Pages Posted: 28 Feb 2024 Last revised: 4 Mar 2024

See all articles by Andrew Willinger

Andrew Willinger

Duke University School of Law, Center for Firearms Law

Date Written: February 13, 2024


In its most recent major Second Amendment decision, NYSRPA v. Bruen, the Supreme Court suggested that historical laws “rarely subject to judicial scrutiny” are not especially illuminating because “we do not know the basis of their perceived legality.” Legal scholars have defended Bruen’s approach to historical evidence in part by arguing that the decision requires merely an artificially-limited historical inquiry into internal legal sources to discern overarching principles accepted across the country in the Founding Era. But modern-day lawyers and judges actually know far less than they might believe about whether certain laws were subject to judicial scrutiny during crucial eras of American history because many court decisions—especially from the Founding Era—were simply never recorded for posterity. Those omissions were not random and they do not represent merely what we today would consider insignificant holdings. Rather, omissions from the surviving record of decisional law are the product of curation by early court reporters, newspaper editors, and other actors often motivated by profit or partisan bias. Therefore, it is often perilous to extrapolate “the general law” from the extant, unrepresentative caselaw that happens to be preserved today.
This Essay examines how the non-legal choices and preferences of those who recorded early American decisional law prior to the gradual emergence of more consistent reporting of judicial decisions in the late 19th century shaped the historical record of early decisional law that exists today. Part I chronicles the largely inconsistent and at times chaotic practice of court reporting at and after the Founding and explores how judicial decisions were preserved and published during that time. Part II addresses how modern originalist theories should approach and appreciate the “curated” nature of legal history from that time. I argue that the record of early American decisional law has been profoundly influenced by various actors (legal and non-legal) according to considerations other than preserving an accurate, comprehensive snapshot of “general law” at the time—namely, based on motives including profit and partisanship. This reality, I suggest, means that it is crucial to expand the universe of historical sources when possible to capture what may be missing from the universe of preserved decisional law.

Keywords: History, Legal History, Originalism, Constitutional Law, Second Amendment

JEL Classification: K10, K40

Suggested Citation

Willinger, Andrew, Missing Pieces: Gaps in the Record of Early American Decisional Law (February 13, 2024). Duke Law Journal Online (forthcoming), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4725271

Andrew Willinger (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law, Center for Firearms Law ( email )

Box 90360
Durham, NC 27708-0360
United States
919-613-8641 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://firearmslaw.duke.edu/

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