It’s no secret to the loyal reader that I’m somewhat of a fan of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who died this weekend. I’ll ignore political implications of this death which began far too quickly after it was announced. I won’t even talk much about the man himself, since others are doing that plenty and I hadn’t met him yet. (We have a mutual friend who was willing to introduce me but we never got around to it. Carpe diem, people.) I’ll say only that he was just imperfect enough to open himself up to some justifiable criticism, though no more so than anyone else I know.
Instead, I’ll spend a few paragraphs defending Scalia’s legacy, the interpretive method known as originalism. You may have seen sarcastic mentions of it on your social media feeds that mocked Scalia for allegedly being stuck in the 18th century. My point is that originalism is the way everyone interprets everything, and constitutional interpretation should not be different; in fact, there are good reasons to make that presumption even stronger.
The Marriage Analogy
Imagine you’ve been married for 20, 25, 30 years, and your spouse comes to you and says, “I know we’ve been together for a long time, but I’m going to have an affair. When I said I’d be faithful, that was a long time ago. We’re getting bored with each other, and infidelity is very common now, so it would really be better if I could have an affair.” You probably wouldn’t appreciate their living relationshipism. You’d feel betrayed. You wouldn’t care how long ago the agreement was formed or infidelity was really on the rise. You’d interpret your agreement the way it was when you made it. If your spouse wanted a change, he/she should have come to you. Couples make adjustments to stay happy (up to and including sanctioned straying, pop culture tells me), so your spouse had that option available if something needed to be changed.
What if your spouse argued that he/she had the right to cheat all along? “Infidelity was always high, and common in many cultures. You really could never have had an expectation I’d be faithful. It just happens to have come up now.” I imagine you’d fight back on that, too. You’d point to your wedding vows, for example; you’d point to the cliched bachelor/ette party comments about your last sexual partner ever; you’d point to what all your friends and family expected your marriage to be.
Don’t look now, but you’ve just engaged in originalism, which just means that an agreement means what it means until it’s properly changed through whatever mechanism changes it. If your marriage arrangement isn’t working, the expectation is to jointly change it by mutual agreement; if a constitutional arrangement isn’t working, the proper path is to amend the constitution. I contend that most people would be irate if their friends or business partners engaged in constant unilateral re-writing of prior agreements. (Being homo hypocritus, of course, we’d keep doing it, because it’s different when we do things.)
The Real Complaint About Originalism
What’s bothering most people about Nino’s originalism (and mine, I guess) is that it isn’t giving them what they want easily, especially the socially liberal chattering classes. The constitution (and its amendments), written when it was, was not friendly to women, or minorities, or the poor. The fact that we wish it weren’t so doesn’t change the language and the original understanding of it. It’s up to us to change the law in a way that reflects present-day public will, to the extent such a thing exists. People who complain about originalist interpretations are mostly mad that they can’t convince enough of their fellow citizens to make the necessary changes.
Unfortunately for the rule of law, it’s become far easier to get the Supreme Court to declare that something has always been constitutionally required (such as gay marriage) than to convince enough states to permit it. The same is true of almost any contentious issue, where the initial Supreme Court ruling is unlikely to be overturned by majority rule in the near term. As a result, we’ve turned the court into a vehicle for expressing that the law or policy should be rather than what it is.
The Unfairness of Non-Originalist Interpretation
The death penalty provides a good example of why using the court as a policy tool is ultimately unjust. The death penalty is clearly contemplated in the constitution and has been widely used since 1787. There is no doubt that it was a constitutional penalty when the constitution was adopted. There are, however, judges – like Justice Breyer on the Supreme Court – who believe the death penalty to have become cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment.
If you believe that the death penalty should be abolished – a position to which I’m sympathetic – then you can follow the example of Nebraska, whose Republican legislature recently abolished the penalty. What you should not do is declare that yesterday the death penalty was constitutional but today it’s not.* That means that two twin brothers committing the same crime a day apart could be punished differently, all without a democratically accountable process by which the people (nominally) decide to change the consequences of a crime. This is, in simple terms, unjust.
*One exception that is often made here is that sometimes the facts on the ground change significantly. I’m not sure how much worse the DEATH penalty could be than we think it is, though, so I’ll ignore that here. A possible application of this rule could be solitary confinement; widely used, but only now are we grasping how destructive it is. If we learn it’s qualitatively different from what we thought it was, then the activity was never knowingly adopted as constitutional, and there may be grounds to interpret the activity as never having been constitutional because of a mistake. This is the sort of loophole that may be stretched beyond all reason, but even I could imagine a fact change so large and severe that I’d be reluctant to wait for the legislative process to catch up to it.
If you’ve read this far, you may have forgotten that this post started with the death of Justice Scalia. The above, in a nutshell, is a simplified and somewhat idealized version of his judicial philosophy. You have probably already seen simplifications and distortions of it online. I hope this explained a little just how common-sensical and intuitive the idea really is.