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“Historical Fanfiction.” The Deceptive, Dangerous Simplicity of Originalism in American Politics

LitHub – Madiba K. Dennie on the Antiquated Conservatism Underpinning the United States’ Highest Courts of Law. “Lawyers don’t often admit this in mixed company, but I’ll let you in on a secret about interpreting the Constitution: there is no one objective way to interpret the Constitution. If there were, what would be the point of judges? We could resolve legal disputes by simply inputting our claims and evidence into a computer that would output uniform rulings. We don’t do that, though, because judging calls for…well, judgment. A classic hypothetical law can show you what I mean: imagine a statute reading, “Vehicles are banned in the park.” One would have no trouble discerning that such a law would be broken by an adult wantonly driving a sports car over the public’s flowerbeds. But what about a child driving a toy convertible? Or a tourist riding a motorized scooter? Or a first responder driving an ambulance to an injured park-goer? Whether those are “vehicles” within the meaning of the law’s prohibition is debatable, so legal arbiters make judgment calls. Judgment is generally exercised in the American legal system through methods of constitutional interpretation. These methods tell us what should or shouldn’t be considered in order to figure out a law’s meaning. Judges need a fair and consistent way to determine what constitutional provisions mean and how to apply them in new and different cases. And “legal interpretative method” is a fancy way of saying “There’s a method to the madness.” There’s been considerable debate historically over what sources and analytical approaches form the best basis for judicial decision-making. Indeed, courts may and often do consider more than just one interpretative method in isolation; they call upon a variety of factors including judicial precedent (what courts have done), historical practices (what people have done), and of course, the text of the Constitution itself. But over the last forty years or so, the conservative legal movement has been wildly successful at promoting the idea that “originalism” is the only legitimate way to interpret the Constitution. The originalist method ostensibly determines constitutionality by relying on the original public meaning of the Constitution at the time it was drafted. Circumstances may evolve, but the Constitution’s meaning does not—or as former Supreme Court justice and fierce originalist Antonin Scalia famously put it, “It’s not a living document. It’s dead, dead, dead.”…

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