Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution

Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

Originalism teaches only that the Constitution’s original meaning is fixed; meanwhile, of course, new applications of that meaning will arise with new developments and new technologies. Consider a few examples. As originally understood, the term “cruel” in the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause referred (at least) to methods of execution deliberately designed to inflict pain. That never changes. But that meaning doesn’t just encompass those particular forms of torture known at the founding. It also applies to deliberate efforts to inflict a slow and painful death by laser. Take another example. As originally understood, the First Amendment protected speech. That guarantee doesn’t just apply to speech on street corners or in newspapers; it applies equally to speech on the Internet. Or consider the Fourth Amendment. As originally understood, it usually required the government to get a warrant to search a home. And that meaning applies equally whether the government seeks to conduct a search the old-fashioned way by rummaging through the place or in a more modern way by using a thermal imaging device to see inside. Whether it’s the Constitution’s prohibition on torture, its protection of speech, or its restrictions on searches, the meaning remains constant even as new applications arise.

I suspect the real complaint of living constitutionalists isn’t with old laws generally so much as it is with the particular terms of this old law. The Constitution is short—only about 7,500 words, including all its amendments. It doesn’t dictate much about the burning social and political questions they care about. Instead, it leaves the resolution of those matters to elections and votes and the amendment process. And it seems this is the real problem for the critics. For when it comes to the social and political questions of the day they care most about, many living constitutionalists would prefer to have philosopher-king judges swoop down from their marble palace to ordain answers rather than allow the people and their representatives to discuss, debate, and resolve them. You could even say the real complaint here is with our democracy.

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