What Was Ever Wrong With Original Intent?

A recent book from Donald Drakeman–The Hollow Core of Constitutional Theory: Why We Need the Framers–addresses a question that has troubled me for some time. As textualists torture text, and advocates of original public meaning go searching for what cannot be objectively ascertained, what was ever wrong with original intent?

The originalist case against original intent, in brief, was that the personal intentions of legislators could not control the meaning of law. Allowing individual intentions to determine meaning for everyone was thought to be anti-republican. The solution was original public meaning, the search not for what the lawmaker meant but rather for how the public understood it. Contra Robert Bork, for example, Justice Scalia felt the understandings of the state ratifying conventions were more important than the debates of the Framers in Philadelphia. That case had some support from James Madison, who expressed similar sentiments. But the understandings of the ratifying conventions predictably diverged, and originalists generally settled on something like a doctrinaire textualism: a search for the precise meaning of the words of the Constitution or a statute as they would have been understood at the time of enactment.

Drakeman shows, however, that the search for the lawmaker’s intent has governed centuries of legal interpretation. Moreover, he demonstrates that the increasingly technocratic tools used to ascertain original meaning–such as searches of linguistic databases of Founding-era texts–are less accurate than flipping a coin.

Drakeman argues that the intent of lawmakers can be ascertained more accurately than public meaning can be. Where original intent is difficult to apply to contemporary circumstances, he writes, the traditional approach of legal interpreters has been to ask about ends and means: What problem was the legislator trying to solve, and what means did he or she use to do so?

The acid test of constitutional sincerity is whether one’s policy preferences and constitutional interpretation ever diverge. They do for Drakeman. He shows several instances, such as the Affordable Care Act, in which a law he opposes on the grounds of policy is nonetheless constitutional when judged by original intent.

The book is compelling. One hopes it will revive what in many corners is regarded as an already settled debate between original public meaning and original intent.

One thought on “What Was Ever Wrong With Original Intent?

  1. Indeed: advocates for original public meaning search for what can’t be determined without moral argumentation. Dworkin and Moore showed why over a generation ago: you can’t escape value judgments in hard cases; you can only escape responsibility for the judgments you make; hence “originalism.”

    Don Drakeman doesn’t want to believe this because he doesn’t want to be governed by the value judgments of someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I sympathize with Don because I don’t want to be governed by someone like Sam Alito. But the fact is too clear for further debate: Hard cases means value judgments — responsibly defended or hiding behind originalist skirts, value judgments.

    Jim Fleming once likened originalism to a zombie: though dead, originalism still walks. My explanation for the zombie: Scholars whose careers represent deep investments in (1) anti-realist metaethics, (2) majoritarian democracy, and/or (3) right-wing political objectives, simply can’t accept a semantic theory that threatens these investments.

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