Illinois Law dean Vikram David Amar and professor Jason Mazzone respond to several points about originalism made by Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky in a recent article published in The Atlantic. Dean Amar and Professor Mazzone explain why three claims in particular—that originalism is an “obscure legal theory” only a few decades old, that judicial review in the federal courts is anti-originalist, and that accurately determining original meaning is “impossible.”
Illinois Law dean Vikram David Amar observes that Justice Brett Kavanaugh is emerging as a centrist perspective in key cases, including one expanding gun rights (New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen) and one repudiating abortion rights (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization). Dean Amar points out that although Justice Kavanaugh voted with the majority in both cases, he added a narrower gloss via a concurring opinion and was the only Justice to do so in both cases.
Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf explores the meaning of a question Justice Clarence Thomas asked during the oral argument in New. York State Rifle. & Pistol Association v. Bruen about the interpretation of the Second Amendment: “should we look at the founding, or should we look at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, which then, of course, applies it to the states?” Professor Dorf argues that the question exposes a weakness of Justice Thomas’s originalist philosophy and affirms what we already know about arguments rooted in original meaning: they typically serve a rhetorical function, and Justices invoke them to justify decisions taken on other, ideological, grounds.
Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf discusses a claim by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley that the purpose of originalism and textualism is to provide a mechanism for obtaining results that religious conservatives favor on ideological grounds. In light of two recent Supreme Court decisions that disappointed conservatives, Dorf considers how conservatives might respond to these decisions and expresses hope that they might rethink their support for Trump. Dorf observes that while Supreme Court rulings do sometimes follow election returns, the reverse is also sometimes true, and we can’t yet know which direction this year will flow.
Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf points out that, taken to its logical conclusion, the originalism philosophy espoused by US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas should mean that the Constitution places stricter limits on states than it does on the federal government. As Dorf explains, the “original meaning” of the Bill of Rights as it applies to the states should refer to its meaning in 1868 (when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted) rather than 1791 (when the Bill of Rights itself was adopted) because the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Bill of Rights applicable to the states. Dorf describes several key differences between the understanding of the Bill of Rights in 1868 and 1791 and considers whether one of the originalist justices will follow where the logic of their philosophy leads.
Cornell law professor Michael C. Dorf argues that the form of originalism typically espoused by scholars—in which constitutional interpretation aims to recover the original public meaning of the text—often ends up being abused in practice. Judges and justices borrow the respectability of public meaning originalism to justify a generally discredited form of originalism that seeks answers in the framers’ and ratifiers’ intentions and expectations. To illustrate this point, Dorf points to Justice Gorsuch’s recent dissent in Sveen v. Melin, which looks not to the text of the Contracts Clause but to what Justice Gorsuch inferred the framers and ratifiers intended and expected.