Tag Archives: Edwin Chereminsky

Let’s Talk About Originalism

Today, the Senate is scheduled to elevate Amy Coney Barrett–a rigid ideologue who has never tried a case– to the Supreme Court. During the fiasco that has substituted for her vetting, we’ve heard a lot about “originalism.”

A while back, a reader of this blog reminded me of Thomas Jefferson’s opinion on originalism, contained in a letter he wrote to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816.  Jefferson wrote

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

The philosophy of “originalism” was popularized by Antonin Scalia, who tended to employ his version of it when he disapproved of those “changes in manners and opinions” and ignore it in the many cases where it was clearly unworkable.

As I have previously explained, there is a version of originalism that does work, that does keep the constitution from being simply what nine people in black robes say it is.

In that version of originalism, courts are required to protect the values and principles that the founders were clearly trying to protect. James Madison could never have anticipated new methods of communication–radio, movies, television, the internet–but he had very clear ideas about protecting expression against government censorship. He, Jefferson and several other Founders also clearly expressed their beliefs in the importance of separating government from religion. Courts today must honor the Founders’ devotion to those and other principles embedded in and protected by the Bill of Rights.

Fidelity to those principles is the only workable and intellectually honest form of originalism, and as Edwin Chereminsky recently pointed out in an editorial for the New York Times, it is definitely not the originalism of Amy Coney Barrett.

Chereminsky is a prominent legal scholar, and Dean of Berkeley’s law school, and he points to the numerous problems with Barrett’s purported “public” originalism–the notion that the constitution must be interpreted to mean what the public thought it meant when it was ratified.

In fact, under the original public meaning of the Constitution, it would be unconstitutional to elect a woman as president or vice president until the Constitution is amended. Article II refers to them with the pronoun “he,” and there is no doubt that original understanding was that only men could hold these offices.

Throughout American history, the Supreme Court has rejected originalism and protected countless rights that cannot possibly be justified under that theory. For example, the court has interpreted the word “liberty” in the Constitution to protect the right to marry, to procreate, to custody of one’s children, to keep the family together, to control the upbringing of one’s children, to purchase and use contraceptives, to obtain an abortion, to engage in private adult consensual same-sex sexual activity, and to refuse medical treatment.

The Dean points out that rejection of Barrett’s understanding of originalism is anything but new. He quotes the 19th century Chief Justice, John Marshall, who wrote that “we must never forget that it is a Constitution we are expounding,” a Constitution “meant to be adapted and endure for ages to come.” Furthermore,

It is a myth to say that an “original public understanding” can be identified for most constitutional provisions because so many people were involved in drafting and ratifying them. In teaching constitutional law, I point to the many instances where James Madison and Alexander Hamilton disagreed about such fundamental questions as whether the president possesses any inherent powers.

Chereminsky makes a point I also make to my classes: how can “original public meaning” guide today’s courts in deciding whether the police can take DNA from a suspect to see if it matches evidence in unsolved crimes, or obtain stored cellular phone location information without a warrant?

The “public originalism” invented by Scalia and embraced by Barrett is an ahistorical cover intended to obscure and justify the judicial activism they profess to deplore–an intentionally dishonest construct allowing judges to favor the privileged and protect the status quo.

Placing Barrett on the Supreme Court dishonors both the Court and the Senators who vote to confirm her.