ORIGINALISM: THE LESSER EVIL by Antonin Scalia

By Antonin Scalia**

 

I refer to the Chief Justice’s opinion for the Court in Myers v. United States,8 which declared unconstitutional congressional attempts to restrict presidential removal of executive officers….

 

What attracts my attention about the Myers opinion is not its substance but its process.  It is a prime example of what, in current scholarly discourse, is known as the “originalist” approach to constitutional interpretation.  The objective of the Chief Justice’s lengthy opinion was to establish the meaning of the Constitution, in 1789, regarding the presidential removal power.  He sought to do so by examining various evidence, including not only, of course, the text of the Constitution and its overall structure, but also the contemporaneous understanding of the President’s removal power (particularly the understanding of the First Congress and of the leading participants in the Constitutional Convention), the background understanding of what “executive power” consisted of under the English constitution, and the nature of the executive’s removal power under the various state constitutions in existence when the Constitution was adopted….

 

It may surprise the layman, but it will surely not surprise the lawyers here, to learn that the originalism is not, and had perhaps never been, the sole method of constitutional exegesis.  It would be hard to count…the opinions that have in fact been rendered not on the basis of what the Constitution originally meant, but on the basis of what the judges currently thought it desirable for it to mean.  That is, I suppose, the sort of behavior Chief Justice Hughes was referring to when he said the Constitution is what the judges say it is.  But in the past, nonoriginalist opinions have almost always had the decency to lie, or at least to dissemble, about what they were doing–either ignoring strong evidence of original intent congenial to the court’s desires, or else not discussing original intent at all, speaking in terms of broad constitutional generalities with no pretense of historical support….13

 

The principal theoretical defect of nonoriginalism, in my view, is its incompatibility with the very principle that legitimizes judicial review of constitutionality.  Nothing in the text of the Constitution confers upon the courts the power to inquire into, rather than passively assume, the constitutionality of federal statutes.  That power is, however, reasonably implicit because, as Marshall said in Marbury v. Madison, (1) “[I]t is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” (2) “[I]f two laws conflict with each other, the courts must decide on the operation of each,” and (3) “the constitution is to be considered, in court, as a paramount law.”24  Central to that analysis, it seems to me, is the perception that the Constitution, though it has an effect superior to other laws, is in its nature the sort of “law” that is the business of the courts – an enactment that has a fixed meaning ascertainable through the usual devices familiar to those learned in the law.  If the Constitution were not that sort of a “law,” but a novel invitation to apply current societal values, what reason would there be to believe that the invitation was addressed to the courts rather than to the legislature?  …Quite to the contrary, the legislature would seem a much more appropriate expositor of societal values, and its determination that a statute is compatible with the Constitution should, as in England, prevail.

 

…If the law is to make any attempt at consistency and predictability, surely there must be general agreement not only that judges reject one exegetical approach (originalism), but that they adopt another.  And it is hard to discern any emerging consensus among the nonoriginalists as to what this might be.  Are the “fundamental values” that replace original meaning to be derived from the philosophy of Plato, or of Locke, or Mills, or Rawls, or perhaps from the latest Gallop poll?  This is not to say that originalists are in entire agreement as to what the nature of their methodology is; as I shall mention shortly, there are some significant differences.  But as its name suggests, it by and large represents a coherent approach, or at least an agreed-upon point of departure. . . .

 

Finally, I want to mention what is not a defect of nonoriginalism, but one of its supposed benefits that seems to me illusory.  A bit earlier I quoted one of the most prominent nonoriginalists, Professor Tribe, to the effect that the Constitution “invites us, and our judges, to expand on the . .  . freedoms that are uniquely our heritage.”25.  I think   it fair to say that that is a common theme of nonoriginalists in general.  But why, one may reasonably ask–once the original import of the Constitution is cast awide to be replaced by the “fundamental values” of the current society–why are we invited only to “expand on” freedoms, and not to contract them as well?  Last Term we decided a case, Coy v. Iowa,26 in which, at the trial of a man accused of taking indecent liberties with two young girls, the girls were permitted to testify separated from the defendant by a screen which prevented them from seeing him.  We held that, at least absent a specific finding that these particular witnesses needed such protection, this procedure violated that provision of the Sixth Amendment that assures a criminal defendant the right “to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”27  Let us hypothesize, however (a hypothesis that may well be true), that modern American society is much more conscious of, and averse to, the effects of “emotional trauma” than was the society of 1791, and that it is, in addition, much more concerned about the emotional frailty of children and the sensitivity of young women regarding sexual abuse.  If that is so, and if the nonoriginalists are right, would it not have been possible for the Court to hold that, even though in 1791 the confrontation clause clearly would not have permitted a blanket exception for such testimony, it does so today?  Such a holding, of course, could hardly be characterized as an “expansion upon” preexisting freedoms….

 

Let me turn next to originalism, which is also not without its warts.  Its greatest defect, in my view, is the difficulty of applying it correctly….But what is true is that it is often exceedingly difficult to plumb the original understanding of an ancient text.  Properly done, the task requires the consideration of an enormous mass of material–in the case of the Constitution and its Amendments, for example, to mention only one element, the records of the ratifying debates in all the states.  Even beyond that, it requires an evaluation of the reliability of that material–many of the reports of the ratifying debates, for example, are thought to be quite unreliable.  And further still, it requires immersing oneself in the political and intellectual atmosphere of the time–somehow placing out of mind knowledge that we have which an earlier age did not, and putting on beliefs, attitudes, philosophies, prejudices and loyalties that are not those of our day.  It is, in short, a task sometimes better suited to the historian than the lawyer….

 

Research conducted years later by Professor William Winslow Crosskey would have been helpful to Taft.  Referring to the royal prerogatives as described in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which had been published in Philadelphia in the early 1770s, Crosskey noted that many–indeed, almost half–of Congress’ enumerated powers had been considered royal prerogatives under the law of England at the time of our Constitution’s adoption.42  For example, Blackstone wrote that the king had “the sole power of raising and regulating fleets and armies,”43 whereas, of course, these powers under our Constitution reside in Congress by virtue of article I, section 8, clauses 12 through 14.  The Constitution also expressly confides in the President certain traditional royal prerogatives subject to limitations not known in the English constitution.  Thus, for example, the king’s absolute veto of legislation became a qualified veto subject to override by a two-thirds vote of Congress,44 and the king’s ability to conclude treaties became a presidential power to negotiate treaties with a two-thirds vote of the Senate needed for ratification.45

 

It is apparent from all this that the traditional English understanding of executive power, or, to be more precise, royal prerogatives, was fairly well known to the founding generation, since they appear repeatedly in the text of the Constitution in formulations very similar to those found in Blackstone.  It can further be argued that when those prerogatives were to be reallocated in whole or part to other branches of government, or were to be limited in some other way, the Constitution generally did so expressly.  One could reasonably infer, therefore, that what was not expressly reassigned would–at least absent patent incompatibility with republican principles–remain with the executive….

 

…Taft’s opinion contains nothing to support that point, except the unsubstantiated assertion that “[I]n the British system, the Crown . . . had the power of appointment and removal of executive officers. . . .”  That is probably so, but the nature of the relationship between the Crown and the government in England during the relevant period was a sufficiently complicated and changing one, that something more than an ipse dixit was called for.48

 

….Nowadays, of course, the Supreme Court does not give itself as much time to decide cases as was customary in Taft’s time.  Except in those very rare instances in which a case is set for reargument, the case will be decided in the same Term in which it is first argued–allowing at best the period between the beginning of October and the end of June, and at worst the period between the end of April and the end of June. . . . Do you have any doubt that this system does not present the ideal environment for entirely accurate historical inquiry?  Nor, speaking for myself at least, does it employ the ideal personnel.

 

I can be much more brief in describing what seems to me the second most serious objection to originalism:  In its undiluted form, at least, it is medicine that seems to strong to swallow.  Thus, almost every originalist would adulterate it with the doctrine of stare decisis–so that Marbury v. Madison would stand even if Professor Raoul Berger should demonstrate unassailably that it got the meaning of the Constitution wrong. . . . What if some state should enact a new law providing public lashing, or branding of the right hand, as punishment for certain criminal offenses?  Even if it could be demonstrated unequivocally that these were not cruel and unusual measures in 1791, and even though no prior Supreme Court decision has specifically disapproved them, I doubt whether any federal judge–even among the many who consider themselves originalists–would sustain them against an eighth amendment challenge.  It may well be, as Professor Henry Monaghan persuasively argues, that this cannot legitimately be reconciled with originalist philosophy–that it represents the unrealistic view of the Constitution as a document intended to create a perfect society for all ages to come, whereas in fact it was a political compromise that did not pretend to create a perfect society even for its own age (as its toleration of slavery, which a majority of the founding generation recognized as an evil, well enough demonstrates).50  Even so, I am confident that public flogging and handbranding would not be sustained by our courts, and any espousal of originalism as a practical theory of exegesis must somehow come to terms with that reality.

 

One way of doing so, of course, would be to say that it was originally intended that the cruel and unusual punishment clause would have an evolving content–that “cruel and unusual” originally meant “cruel and unusual for the age in question” and not “cruel and unusual in 1791.”  But to be faithful to originalist philosophy, one must not only say this but demonstrate it to be so on the basis of some textual or historical evidence.  Perhaps the mere words “cruel and unusual” suggest an evolutionary intent more than other provisions of the Constitution, but that is far from clear; and I know of no historical evidence for that meaning.  And if the faint-hearted originalist is willing simply to posit such an intent for the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause, why not for the due process clause, etc.? . . .

 

Having described what I consider the principal difficulties with the originalist and nonoriginalist approaches, I suppose I owe it to the listener to say which of the two evils I prefer.  It is originalism.  I take the need for theoretical legitimacy seriously, and even if one assumes (as many nonoriginalists do not even bother to do) that the Constitution was originally meant to expound evolving rather than permanent values, as I discussed earlier I see no basis for believing that supervision of the evolution would have been committed to the courts.  At an even more general theoretical level, originalism seems to me more compatible with the nature and purpose of a Constitution in a democratic system.  A democratic society does not, by and large, need constitutional guarantees to insure that its laws will reflect “current values.”  Elections take care of that quite well.  The purpose of constitutional guarantees of individual rights that are at the center of this controversy–is precisely to prevent the law from reflecting certain changes in original values that the society adopting the Constitution thinks fundamentally undesirable.  Or, more precisely, to require the society to devote to the subject the long and hard consideration required for a constitutional amendment before those particular values can be cast aside.

 

I also think the central practical defect of nonoriginalism is fundamental and irreparable:  the impossibility of achieving any consensus on what, precisely, is to replace original meaning, once that is abandoned.  The practical defects of originalism, on the other hand, while genuine enough, seem to me less severe.  While it may indeed be unrealistic to have substantial confidence that judges and lawyers will find the correct historical answer to such refined questions of original intent as the precise content of “the executive Power,” for the vast majority of questions the answer is clear.  The death penalty, for example, was not cruel and unusual punishment because it is referred to in the Constitution itself; and the right of confrontation by its plain language meant, at least, being face-to-face with the person testifying against one at trial.  For the nonoriginalist, even these are open questions. . . .

 

Now the main danger in judicial interpretation of the Constitution–or, for that matter, in judicial interpretations of any law–is that the judges will mistake their own predilections for the law.  Avoiding this error is the hardest part of being a conscientious judge; perhaps no conscientious judge ever succeeds entirely.  Nonoriginalism, which under one or another formulation invokes “fundamental values” as the touchstone of constitutionality, plays precisely to this weakness.  It is very difficult for a person to discern a difference between those political values that he personally thinks most important, and those political values that are “fundamental to our society.”  Thus, by the adoption of such a criterion judicial personalization of the law is enormously facilitated. . . .

 

Originalism does not aggravate the principal weakness of the system, for it establishes a historical criterion that is conceptually quite separate from the preferences of the judge himself.  And the principal defect of that approach–that historical research is always difficult and sometimes inconclusive – will, unlike nonoriginalism, lead to a more moderate rather than a more extreme result.  The inevitable tendency of judges to think that the law is what they would like it to be will, I have no doubt, cause most errors in judicial historiography to be made in the direction of projecting upon the age of 1789 current, modern values–so that as applied, even as applied in the best of faith, originalism will (as the historical record shows) end up as something of a compromise.  Perhaps not a bad characteristic for a constitutional theory. . . .

 

The vast majority of my dissents from nonoriginalist thinking (and I hope at least some of those dissents will be majorities) will, I am sure, be able to be framed in the terms that, even if the provision in question has an evolutionary content, there is inadequate indication that any evolution in social attitudes has occurred.51  That–to conclude this largely theoretical talk on a note of reality–is the real dispute that appears in the case:  not between nonoriginalists on the one hand and pure originalists on the other, concerning the validity of looking at all to current values; but rather between, on the one hand, nonoriginalists . . . and pure-originalists-accepting for the sake-of-argument-evolutionary-content, and, on the other hand, other adherents of the same. . . approaches, concerning the nature and degree of evidence necessary to demonstrate that constitutional evolution has occurred.

© 1989 by Antonin Scalia.  All rights reserved.

* This address was delivered on September 16, 1988 at the University of Cincinnati as the William Howard Taft Constitutional Law Lecture.

** Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court.

8 272 U.S. 52 (1926).

13 Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602, 628 (1935).

24 5 U.S. (1  Cranch.) 137,177 (1803).

  1. I..TRIBE, supra note 15, at 45.

26 108 S. Ca. 2798 (1988).

27 Id. At 2800.

42 See I.W. CROSSKEY, POLITICS AND THE CONSTITUTION 428 (1953); see also U.S. CONST. Art. 1 § 8.

43 2.W.BLACKSTONE, COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND 262 n. 33 (Tucker ed. 1803).

44 Compare 2 W. BLACKSTONE, id. At 260,260-62 n. 30, with U.S. CONST. art, II, § 2,cl. 2.

45 Compare 2 W. BLACKSTONE id. At 257, 257 n. 21, with U.S. CONST. art. II, § 2, cl. 2.

48 See F. MAITLAND, THE CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY OF ENGLAND 387-400 (1908).

50 See Monaghan, Our Perfect Constitution, 56 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 353 (1981).

51 See e.g., Thompson v. Oklahoma, 108 S. Ct. 2687, 2711 (1988) (Scalia, J., dissenting).

 

 

 

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