An Originalist Theory of Precedent

68 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2005

See all articles by Lee J. Strang

Lee J. Strang

University of Toledo College of Law


There is substantial scholarly disagreement on whether and in what manner prior decisions of the United States Supreme Court interpreting the Constitution bind it later in time. This is despite the consensus of American legal practice that prior constitutional decisions do bind later courts. At the heart of the debate surrounding precedent is the tension between our written Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, and the role of the unelected Supreme Court in exercising constitutional judicial review. Further, the existence of numerous and important nonoriginalist precedents is used by critics of originalism as an (in their view, often decisive) argument against originalism.

In this Article I will offer a theory of constitutional precedent within an originalist framework. I will argue that a limited respect is due some nonoriginalist constitutional precedent because of the larger societal goal of effectively pursuing the common good.

I will initially describe the problem that precedent has posed for scholars and courts in the area of constitutional adjudication. First, I will explain what I mean by a theory of precedent. Second, I will briefly discuss the debate over the proper interpretative methodology of the Constitution. Third, I will show how, for any plausible theory of constitutional interpretation, there will be precedents that, under the methodology, are mistakes. Lastly, I will review attempts by originalist scholars to elucidate a theory of precedent in constitutional adjudication.

I will then lay out my theory of originalist precedent. First, I will describe the originalist interpretative methodology I am assuming for purposes of this Article. Central to the originalist methodology that I describe is the concept of the common good. Then, I will argue that courts should not overrule nonoriginalist constitutional precedent only when overruling the precedent would gravely harm society's pursuit of the common good.

Originalism requires judges to adhere to the meaning of the text of the Constitution as it was understood when ratified. In constitutional adjudication, therefore, judges may only apply the positive law of the Constitution and may not, generally, directly apply natural law norms. By contrast, when determining whether to overrule or limit nonoriginalist precedent, judges will be relatively unconstrained and will have to make those determinations by looking to what the common good of society requires. As a result, I will briefly discuss a theory of judicial virtue to account for how judges should exercise this discretion.

Keywords: Precedent, stare decisis, originalism, original meaning, constitutional interpretation, virtue, common good, Aristotle, Aquinas, Scalia

Suggested Citation

Strang, Lee J., An Originalist Theory of Precedent. New Mexico Law Review, Vol. 36, p. 419, 2006, Available at SSRN:

Lee J. Strang (Contact Author)

University of Toledo College of Law ( email )

2801 W. Bancroft Street
Toledo, OH 43606
United States
419-530-2877 (Phone)

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