And these are the easy cases. How about terms like due process? What does due mean? Is a process that locks you up for life without access to a lawyer “due”? How about an “unreasonable” search and seizure? Is wiretapping “unreasonable”? (We wonder what the Framers thought about wiretapping or cyber theft.) Does “freedom of speech” apply to corporations, which didn’t exist in their modern form in 1787?
To put it bluntly, the whole premise of originalism is nonsense in that it pretends to make the work of the Supreme Court look straightforward and mechanical, like “calling balls and strikes,” in Justice John Roberts’s famous phase. But defining equal protection, due process, or unreasonable is not. We need a Supreme Court to interpret the intent and appropriate application of the terms of the Constitution to particular cases (many not dreamed of by the Framers).
Originalism is an intellectual cloak drummed up (somewhat recently) to dignify a profoundly retrogressive view of the Constitution as a straitjacket on the ability of the federal government to act on behalf of the public. Its real purpose is to justify a return to the legal environment of the early 1930s, when the Court routinely struck down essential elements of the New Deal. Business regulation, Social Security, and Medicare? Not so fast. The Affordable Care Act, environmental protections, a woman’s right to choose? Forget it. And this despite the Constitution’s preamble, which states that one of its basic purposes is to “promote the general welfare.”
This does not mean that the Court should be totally unmoored from the text of the Constitution or the intent of the Framers and act as an unchecked super-legislature (with lifetime tenure to boot). Clearly, this would be inconsistent with the underlying democratic idea that the American people should be the ultimate decision makers through regular elections and the actions of their elected representatives. The Court must interpret and apply the terms of the Constitution according to their plain meaning (where there is a plain meaning) and the understanding and intent of the Framers (where there was such a thing). But it also must recognize that our understanding of our principles and values has expanded over time, and it must interpret the law in the context of that growth.
The intellectual dishonesty of many originalists is exposed by their reluctance to follow their own logic regarding certain landmark cases, now widely recognized as milestones in our national progress toward “a more perfect union.” The easiest examples are Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, the former concerning school integration, the latter, interracial marriage, illegal in Virginia until Loving in 1967. Both decisions explicitly fail the originalist test, yet Judge Barrett asserts they were correctly decided and endorses them as “super-precedents,” a convenient dodge that evades the troubling implications of her supposedly simple theory of constitutional interpretation.