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Originalism And The Virtue Of Constitutional Piety

Publication Date: 
July 14, 2008
Concurring Opinions
Nate Oman

Dean Larry Kramer's stand on originalism is the subject of Nate Oman's blog:

Over the weekend, I loaded my iPod with a lecture by Larry Kramer and listened to him talk popular constitutionalism while I mowed the lawn. At one point, he went out of his way to insist that he was "profoundly anti-originalist," a statement that he qualified by saying "if by originialist you mean that we should do something just because that is what the founders said or intended." My first reaction was that Kramer was responding to a straw man. Originalism is not a form of mindless filial piety, it is a theory of textual meaning and adjudication. The notion that the meaning of a legal text is best construed by reference to the times in which it was written, and that judges are bound by rule-of-law values to ground their decisions in that meaning seems like a thoroughly respectable jurisprudential theory. As I emptied the grass clippings into the compost pile, however, I started re-thinking my reaction to Kramer's throw-away line. Yes, he was responding to a straw man in so far as judicial or academic originalists are concerned, but surely when it comes to popular originalism there is a certain ancestor worship going on. Might there be something to be said in defense of such piety?