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Technology and the Constitution

The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, Vol. 61, NO. 5, Spring 2004

9 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2006  

O. Carter Snead

Notre Dame Law School


How do emerging developments in science and technology affect the way we interpret the Constitution? This is, on its face, an enormous question. Technology and science are ever expanding, and there are many different approaches to constitutional jurisprudence. One could fill many volumes in an effort to engage this issue in a serious way. But we can also learn a great deal about the larger subject by asking a more modest question: How does technological innovation affect one particular approach to constitutional interpretation - "originalist textualism," the belief that the text of the Constitution should be construed and applied according to its original meaning?

Because of its defining feature - the requirement that constitutional provisions be construed according to their original meaning - originalist textualism is profoundly affected by advances in science and technology. In cases and controversies in which such advances are centrally involved, originalist jurists are required to discern and apply temporally fixed concepts to circumstances and possibilities that could never have been contemplated by the authors of the Constitution. This collision of fixed meaning and novel realities born of technological progress stands to force a "crisis of construction," where fidelity to originalist textualism is greatly complicated or costly, and in some cases yields politically undesirable or untenable results.

This crisis can take at least three forms. First, there are crises of application, in which the original meaning of the constitutional provision is clear, but technological advances tempt the jurist to depart from this meaning, since doing so would yield a politically desirable result. Second, there are crises of premises, where the original meaning of the clauses in question is once again clear, but where technological developments undermine the factual premises and assumptions that underlie that original meaning, leading to anomalous and unintended political consequences. Finally, there are crises of meaning, in which it is unclear whether a particular word or phrase of a given constitutional provision contemplates a new activity or concept that only new technology makes possible. By examining the nature of these crises, and reflecting on the capacity of originalist textualism to resolve them within its own self-imposed limiting principles, we can perhaps learn something in general about how technological innovation can affect constitutional interpretation. And we can consider whether an originalist approach to the Constitution is still feasible or sensible in an age when judges routinely confront complex questions at the intersection of technology and law.

Keywords: Originalism, textualism, biotechnology, medicine, living constitution, bioethics, medical ethics, science, constitutional law

JEL Classification: K1, K10, K19, K3, K30, K32, K39, K4, K40, K49

Suggested Citation

Snead, O. Carter, Technology and the Constitution. The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society, Vol. 61, NO. 5, Spring 2004. Available at SSRN:

O. Carter Snead (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-8259 (Phone)


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