The original

Many people invoke the “plain text” (or some close variant) of the constitution in order to resolve questions about its meaning. Those people, insofar as they insist on that principle, are originalists. For a more edifying discussion of that topic than one can find here, see Brian Leiter’s law blog. Here’s an excerpt of his argument:

>. . . [O]nce we acknowledge (as Barnett rightly does) that a theory of constitutional interpretation must answer to a theory of constitutional legitimacy, then the constitution (as a written document, or as a document about which framers had some original intention, or as a document which had an original “public” meaning, and so on) drops almost entirely out of the picture: the theory of constitutional legitimacy tells judges how they should decide cases, and the written constitution is, at best, a proxy for what is constitutionally legitimate or is relevant because of its effect on the reasonable expectations of citizens (the latter being a factor bearing on constitutional legitimacy). In other words, Barnett’s theory of constitutional interpretation, because it (unlike most theories–Ackerman’s, Amar’s, etc.) has the correct moral structure is not really a defense of originalism, but a defense of whatever method of interpretation produces “legitimate” (i.e., morally authoritative) outcomes. The writtenness of the constitution, and its original meaing, might, indeed, figure at this point, but only in the way that Raz (who, in an odd way, echoes Posner) suggests: namely, because some moral value (some moral value that bears on authority) attaches to the fact that some understanding of the constitution (original or otherwise) has been stable, relied upon, figures in the public understanding of the society in which people plan their lives, etc.

Aside from the fact that nothing about the Constitution says it should be interpreted one way rather than another, once one adopts an interpretative theory, as Leiter suggests, one has left the text behind. All of this makes the following response mystifying:

>Notice that, while “justice” is the ultimate normative justification for originalism, the intermediate steps are crucial. If a written constitution is valuable for the reasons identified–to define and police the principal-agent relationship–then one cannot simply dispense with it in pursuit of greater justice. More precisely, agent-judges cannot on their own authorize agent-legislatures to exceed their proper powers as defined by the written Constitution in pursuit of greater “justice” than that document provides.

“Simply dispense” and “on their own” beg the question against Leiter, at least it seems so to me. The argument concerns how one ought to read the Constitution, part of that argument involves denying “an original” meaning in isolation from a more basic legal theory. Asserting that one ought to read the Constitution literally just ignores that point.

It turns out that point was made here by Larry Solum:

>Once we have the distinction between semantic and normative originalism in place, it is easy to see that semantic claims are at the heart of the New Originalism or original-meaning originalism. If the semantic claim were false, and the conventional semantic meaning of the text in context at the time of framing and ratification were not the “meaning” of the constitution, then it would be difficult for New Originalists to argue that there are good normative reasons to give this meaning authority. The difficulty is obvious: why should we have a normative commitment to something the Constitution doesn’t mean? If the original meaning is not the actual semantic content of the constitution, but is instead a construction or invention of originalist judges, then many of the normative arguments produced by originalists could be turned against originalism itself.