Scalia's Infidelity: A Critique of Faint-Hearted Originalism

19 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2006


In this essay, based on the 2006 William Howard Taft lecture, I critically evaluate Justice Antonin Scalia's famous and influential 1988 Taft Lecture, entitled Originalism: The Lesser Evil. In his lecture, Justice Scalia began the now-widely-accepted shift from basing constitutional interpretation on the intent of the framers to relying instead on the original public meaning of the text. At the same time, I explain how Justice Scalia allows himself three ways to escape originalist results that he finds to be objectionable: (1) when the text is insufficiently rule-like, (2) when precedent has deviated from original meaning and (3) (when the first two justifications are unavailing) just ignore originalism to avoid sufficiently objectionable results. While Justice Scalia describes his approach as faint-hearted originalism, I contend that he is not really an originalist at all as evidenced by this lecture and also by his stances as a justice in several important cases. This leaves Justice Thomas as the only justice who seems at all bound by originalist conclusions with which he may disagree. I then summarize why the courts ought to adhere to original public meaning originalism, why this form of originalism is preferable to the principal alternative - which I call the underlying principles approach - and why originalism, properly understood, does not lead to the types of grossly objectionable results that lead Justice Scalia to be faint of heart.

Keywords: Justice Antonin Scalia, Constitutional Law, Originalism, original public meaning of constitutional text

JEL Classification: K40, K49

Suggested Citation

Barnett, Randy E., Scalia's Infidelity: A Critique of Faint-Hearted Originalism. University of Cincinnati Law Review, Vol. 75, No. 7, 2006, Boston University School of Law Working Paper No. 06-01, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 880112, Available at SSRN:

Randy E. Barnett (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9936 (Phone)


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