Great Britain

Amy Coney Barrett is a constitutional ‘originalist’ – but what does it mean?

The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett as a supreme court justice marks the advent of a bedrock conservative majority on the court that analysts expect to influence American life for a generation.

Barrett’s arrival on the court will make it easier for the conservative bloc to get to a five-vote majority on future cases involving everything from environmental regulations to voting rights. But, as the latest conservative judge to declare herself a constitutional “originalist” during confirmation hearings, Barrett could also influence what kinds of arguments hold sway on the court for years to come – and what cases the court hears in the first place.

It has been rare over the course of American history for a particular brand of judicial philosophy to gain such prominence that it catches the public eye. A torrent of judicial appointments by Donald Trump over the last four years, however, including three supreme court nominees espousing “originalism”, has pushed the term into the political discourse.

Barrett defined the term for the Senate. “So in English, that means that I interpret the constitution as a law, that I interpret its text as text and I understand it to have the meaning that it had at the time people ratified it,” she said. “So that meaning doesn’t change over time. And it’s not up to me to update it or infuse my own policy views into it.”

Aziz Huq, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, said that there is a thriving academic debate about the merits of originalism that is only “loosely connected” with the current political discourse, in which the term is often used on the right as a philosophical fig leaf for a conservative political agenda.

“The political discourse of originalism is closely aligned with the policy preferences of the Republican party that has promoted judges who happen to take this perspective,” Huq said. “It purports to be something that is moving outside politics, but it is – in its origins, and in the way that it has been applied in the courts – it is tightly linked to a particular partisan political orientation.”

Elected officials and other who have noticed that 86% of Trump’s judicial appointees are white and 75% are men have begun to hear something else in the term: a nostalgic appeal to the exclusive hold on power by white men at the time the constitution was written – a sense reinforced by the president’s repeated personal refusal to disavow white supremacy.

“Are you an originalist?” the Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is a lawyer but not a judge, was asked by a reporter this month.

Lightfoot chuckled. “You ask a gay, black woman if she is an originalist?” Lightfoot said. “No, ma’am, I am not. Since the constitution didn’t consider me a person in any way, shape or form, because I’m a woman, because I’m black, because I’m gay – I’m not an originalist.”

But other legal analysts say that the search for an “original public meaning” of the constitution, including later amendments ruling out discrimination and expanding the right to vote, is an appropriate avenue of legal reasoning that is increasingly employed on the left as well as the right.

In making the case that Trump was guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors” and “bribery”, the House impeachment managers led by congressman Adam Schiff relied on originalist arguments about how those terms were understood by the founders, analysts point out. Liberal supreme court justices have even recently used originalist analysis to advance arguments about gun control, emoluments, faithless electors and the delegation by Congress of policymaking authority to executive branch agencies.

“The goal of originalism is really just to argue that the constitutional rule that’s embodied in the constitution should be understood in the way that it was understood by those who adopted it in the first place, and that courts ought to be constrained by that understanding when it’s possible to determine what that understanding is,” said Keith Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton University specializing in constitutional theory.

“That doesn’t require government policy to look like anything that it might have looked like in an earlier age, it certainly doesn’t require going back to particular practices that were true in earlier periods.”

But originalist reasoning does harken to a time when the conception of the federal government’s role was much narrower, Huq said, making it a particularly useful tool for dismantling public health protections and other regulations.

That conservative project could accelerate with Barrett on the bench, Huq said.

“What I would expect to see is that, under an originalist guise, we will start to see the court aggressively trying limit the scope of the regulatory state, the helping hand of the state – and to prevent it from stepping in to prevent the harms that arise from climate change, from pollution, workplace safety issues – the list is long.”

Originalism as applied by the court also has a tragic blind spot, failing to grapple with structural violence directed at minorities under the law, Huq said.

“The court has almost nothing to say about the vast domains of government activity in which race plays a major role, but isn’t stated on the face of the law,” he said.

“Criminal justice is saturated with racial animus and saturated with racial bias, but the laws are not written with race in the text of the law, therefore the court has nothing to say. There are almost no cases in the supreme court about racial bias in criminal justice, and this is why.”

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