Sunstein’s Critique of Originalism

In his most recent column, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein criticizes originalism:

But originalism is just one of many possible approaches to the Constitution. If it is taken seriously, there is a good argument that it would produce results that most Americans would despise — and that any Trump nominee should be asked about.

For example, originalism could easily lead to the following conclusions:

States can ban the purchase and sale of contraceptives.

The federal government can discriminate on the basis of race — for example, by banning African Americans from serving in the armed forces, or by mandating racial segregation in the D.C. schools.

The federal government can discriminate against women — for example, by banning them from serving in high-level positions in the U.S. government.

States are permitted to bring back segregation, and they can certainly discriminate on the basis of sex.

Neither federal nor state governments have to respect the idea of one person, one vote; some people could be given far more political power than others.

States can establish Christianity as their official religion.

Important provisions of national environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, are invalid.

The president should not nominate, and the Senate should not confirm, anyone who subscribes to these seven propositions — and originalists have to do real work to explain why they reject them.

The usual response to this argument from originalists is to context whether these claims are really true about originalism. One might argue that the original meaning does not lead to some of these results, that others are protected by precedent, and yet others are appropriately struck down. Mike Ramsey does a great job of responding to Sunstein’s charges here.

But I want to address Sunstein’s argument in a different way. Perhaps it was just carelessness, but notice the language above that I italicized: “originalism could easily lead to the following conclusions.” Even if Sunstein were right about this, what would that prove?

Consider the main alternative to originalism: nonoriginalism. Obviously, this is not a single interpretive approach, but put that to the side. Could nonoriginliast “easily lead” to those conclusions?  Of course, it could. In fact, to the extent that nonoriginalism is about pursuing discretion on the part of judges to pursue what a good constitution would be – which is a big part of nonoriginalism – nonoriginalism clearly would allow these results.

It is true that there are different types of nonoriginalism, but if one is defining the interpretive approach without regard to specific political results – for example, an interpretive approach with the goal of reaching progressive or conservative results – then most forms of nonoriginalism will fail Sunstein’s test. Consider, for example, the pluralist or modalities approach of Phillip Bobbit. This approach has various modalities that one can consider and the judge generally has great discretion in deciding which one to employ. Could it lead to the consequences Sunstein deplores? Of course.

Now, I suppose Sunstein might attempt to defend himself by saying that we should follow precedent. But precedent is no solution. Unless Sunstein wants to follow all precedent rigorously – something I doubt he would affirm, since it would have precluded many important cases such as Brown and Obergerfell – he has a problem again. Precedents can be overturned so the system might lead to the results Sunstein dislikes.

In the end, there is no way out for Sunstein, unless he wants to define his position as simply favoring progressivism. Yes, an interpretive approach explicitly designed to reach progressive results will make Sunstein happy. But the power-grabbing arbitrariness of this approach would be too obvious to command much assent.

Reader Discussion

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on February 06, 2017 at 10:19:15 am

Excellent rebuttal!

I find it very telling that the folks who take the non-originalist approach to the Constitution when confronted with the fact that Abortion rights are nowhere therein specified, are the same folks who are quick to take an originalist approach when they make the same, but opposing argument in regards to the Bible.

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Paul Binotto
on February 06, 2017 at 11:06:49 am

And here are two more responses to Sunstein and his *silliness*



I would compare Sunstein to one of those New England Patriot "Haters" vis a vis his disdain for originalism.

Just like the Patriots there is no defeating EXCELLENCE, Cass baby!

Best superBowl Ever - and the Pats deserved it.
Disclosure: this praise is coming from a Seahawks season ticket holder.

But Excellence IS Excellence and it cannot be denied.

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Image of gabe
on February 06, 2017 at 15:29:01 pm

"No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

For Brown , Loving, Obergerfell, and Roe v. Wade, precedent was set in Genesis; God Created every human person, from the moment of conception, equal in Dignity, while being complementary as a beloved son or daughter.

Since it is true that human persons, are not, in essence, objects of sexual desire/inclination/orientation, but rather, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and it is true that every man is free to choose a woman to be his wife, and every woman is free to choose a man to be her husband, as long as that particular man and woman have the ability and desire to exist in relationship as husband and wife, then we can know through both Faith and reason, that both Roe v. Wade, by denying the essence of being a son or daughter, and Obergerfell, by denying the essence of being a husband or wife, remain in error in regards to substantive and procedural due process law.

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Image of Nancy D.
Nancy D.
on July 10, 2018 at 10:21:53 am

[…] mainstream legal scholars, including Harvard’s Cass Sunstein, have shredded the Originalist approach, showing how so-called strict construction of the Constitution can be used […]

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Image of Brett Kavanaugh’s choice is a achievement for ‘originalists’ | Jill Abramson – Planet News
Brett Kavanaugh’s choice is a achievement for ‘originalists’ | Jill Abramson – Planet News

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.