How Different Are Originalism and Non-Originalism?

Peter J. Smith

Volume 62, Issue 3, 707-736

Several prominent and self-described “new originalists” have begun to contend that the objective original meaning of many of the Constitution’s provisions should be ascertained at a very high level of generality. They have also urged recognition of a distinction between constitutional “interpretation,” which involves the determination of the meaning of the constitutional text, and constitutional “construction,” which involves the formulation of legal rules to apply the text to concrete situations. These scholars have noted that because the constitutional text often is phrased at a very high level of generality, originalist interpretation alone simply cannot answer many difficult questions of constitutional law, and thus courts must formulate rules that are not themselves dictated by the original meaning.

If this is what originalism entails, then there is no obvious distinction, at least in practice and possibly in theory, between new originalism and non-originalism. After all, most non-originalists treat the original meaning as the starting point for any interpretive inquiry, but are willing to look elsewhere—to history, precedent, structure, and policy, among others—to construct constitutional meaning when the text is vague or indeterminate.

All of this naturally leads one to question how different originalism and non-originalism really are. The short answer is that it depends on whom we ask, because not every originalist—indeed, not even every “new originalist”—accepts these recent modifications to originalist thinking. Given modern originalism’s origins as a response to the perceived excesses of non-originalism, it is not surprising that many originalists have resisted refinements to the theory that would tend to collapse the distinction between originalism and non-originalism. But the growing rift among originalists poses a greater risk to originalism than the mere prospect of intramural disagreement. Much of the force of the case for originalism has long derived from its claims to neutrality and objectivity. As the originalist tent grew, embracing scholars with a broad range of substantive commitments, these claims became perhaps more plausible. But originalists’ rejection of the claims of the “new new originalists”—claims that follow quite naturally, even if not inevitably, from the important refinements of new originalism itself—and their continuing insistence on an approach to constitutional interpretation that usually produces substantively conservative results have threatened once again to undermine their claims to neutrality and objectivity.

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