Original Meaning and Constitutional Redemption

Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 24, 2007

Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 140

106 Pages Posted: 18 May 2007 Last revised: 14 Apr 2008


This article responds to criticisms of my theory of constitutional interpretation offered in Abortion and Original Meaning, http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=925558, and expands on various parts of the theory.

Fidelity to original meaning follows from our commitment to a written constitution that preserves enforceable legal meaning over time. Originalist lawyers and scholars shifted from original intention and original understanding theories to original meaning in the 1980s to answer important criticisms of originalism. They assumed that original meaning originalism would support most of the same criticisms of judicial activism and living constitutionalism that had motivated the turn to originalism. The distinction I emphasize between original meaning and original expected application was not salient in these debates. Nevertheless, once we recognize the full implications of this distinction, original meaning originalism is fully compatible with living constitutionalism.

Constitutional interpretation is premised on faith in the constitutional project. This is a faith that the constitutional system as a whole is worthy of legitimacy and respect or will come to be so over time, even if important aspects of the document and its associated institutions are imperfect and unjust. Interpretive fidelity thus requires faith in the redeemability of the Constitution over time; hence my theory of interpretation is a theory of redemptive constitutionalism.

The Constitution's text and principles are central resources that make this redemption possible. Like many constitutions, the U.S. Constitution contains open ended clauses that delegate many questions to future generations and leave ample room for constitutional construction to flesh out and implement constitutional language. Constitution makers adopt these clauses – and many other features of constitutions besides - to channel and discipline future political judgment, not simply to forestall it.

A successful constitution like America's must simultaneously serve three functions: It must be basic law a framework for governance that allocates powers and responsibilities. It must be higher law a source of aspiration and a reflection of values that stand above ordinary law and hold it to account. And it must be our law an object of attachment that we see as the product of our collective efforts as a people. Viewing the Constitution as our law involves a collective identification with those who came before us and those who will come after us. The Constitution as our law constitutes us as a people that extends over time. This collective identification is a constitutional story that allows us to regard the Constitution as our own even if we never officially consented to it.

The theory of text and principle serves these three functions better than theories that tie constitutional principles closely to original expected application. A theory that rejects delegation to the future does not function well as basic law because it misunderstands why constitutional adopters adopt open-textured language; it cannot operate as higher law because it so distrusts aspirationalism. Finally, it fails as our law, because it does not allow us to see our present day values – for example, our commitment to sex equality as the application and fulfillment of past principles and commitments. It must treat these achievements as mistakes that we now maintain out of reliance on precedent or because they would now be too politically embarrassing to discard.

Social and political movements have repeatedly argued for change by calling on the Constitution's text and its underlying principles. Constitutional change occurs because Americans persuade each other about the best meaning of constitutional text and principle in their own time. These debates and political struggles help generate Americans' investment in the Constitution as their Constitution and they create a platform for the possibility – but not the certainty of its redemption in history.

Lawyers, judges and legal scholars have no normative obligation to listen to the claims of any particular political or social movement. However, as a descriptive matter they regularly translate claims of constitutional politics into claims about constitutional law. Constitutional theories offer a language for us to defend and criticize the Constitution-in-practice with the hope of moving it closer to our ideals of what the Constitution should be. They allow us to fight for the Constitution's redemption over time. Struggles over constitutional interpretation are part of the process that makes the Constitution our law, that generates our attachment to it even in dark times when our views are not shared by the majority and that helps support its overall legitimacy.

Keywords: Constitutional interpretation, constitutional theory, original meaning, redemption, redemptive constitutionalism

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Balkin, Jack M., Original Meaning and Constitutional Redemption. Constitutional Commentary, Vol. 24, 2007, Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 140, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=987060

Jack M. Balkin (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-1620 (Phone)

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