In recent times, the Supreme Court is decreasingly viewed as a respectable institution of impartial justice and judgment. Rather, it is viewed as another pit of partisanship where biased judges twist the law into their own personal image. It was not designed to be like this. The Constitution was drafted by our Founding Fathers with definite words conveying definite meanings to outline particular governmental powers.
The interpretive theory of originalism—in which the words of the Constitution are interpreted according to their original meaning—recognizes the importance of the meaning of words to the Constitutional order, the proper role of the Supreme Court, and our republican form of government. On the other hand, non-originalist theories demolish such meaning and consequently harm the image of the Supreme Court and the republic. Therefore, the Constitution ought to be interpreted by way of originalism to restore the Supreme Court to its former status of honor as an impartial judiciary and consequently improve the health of our republic.
The Importance of Meaning in Interpretation
First, the Constitution ought to be interpreted by its original meaning as a matter of fidelity to its status as the written document that binds our union together. Like all other written documents, its words must be interpreted according to their original historical and grammatical context, not by some personal imagination or preference. For instance, one ought not interpret Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as metaphorical poetry. To do otherwise would be to fundamentally misrepresent the nature of these works, deprive them of any true meaning, and consequently be complicit in perpetuating falsehood.
Likewise, to interpret the words of the Constitution outside of their historical and grammatical context would be to strip the document of any true meaning and force. This is all the more significant given that the Constitution is supposed to be the “supreme Law of the Land” as said in Article VI. If the words of the Constitution can be divorced from their original legal context, then the individual rights and republican form of government for the People of the United States guaranteed by the Constitution are called into question. If the words authoritatively holding our legal institutions in place are subject to radical reinterpretation, then the same is consequently true of the institutions themselves.
Ironically, in their purported quest for expanding Constitutional rights for the People, non-originalist judges in actuality empty Constitutional rights of their power by recontextualizing them with new meanings that their original authors would have never dreamed. Constitutional rights legitimately delegated to citizens through their representative legislatures are transformed into the personal policy preferences of unelected judges under non-originalism. The historical record confirms this importance of the definite meaning of words to the Constitution and how the corruption of meaning consequently has harmful effects for our republican forms of government.
Originalism and Non-Originalism in American History
The originalist conception of the Constitution as a legal document that sets forth specific provisions and limitations on governmental powers is implicit in the Constitution itself. The Framers at the Constitutional Convention would not have spent so much time rigorously debating the precise language if they thought its meaning was an empty shell that could be filled by any unelected judge later in the country’s history. Moreover, the arduous amendment process set forth in Article V undercuts the non-originalist idea of the “living Constitution” in which judges have broad discretion to reinterpret the meaning of the text in certain situations.
This view of the Constitution as outlining definite and limited powers is confirmed by testimony from Chief Justice John Marshall, an influential American statesmen who was contemporary with the Founding Fathers and the ratification of the Constitution. Chief Justice John Marshall said this of the Constitutional government in the monumental Marbury v. Madison (1803) decision (“WILLIAM MARBURY…”):
“This original and supreme will organizes the government, and assigns to different departments their respective powers. It may either stop here; or establish certain limits not to be transcended by those departments. The government of the United States is of the latter description. The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the constitution is written. To what purpose are powers limited, and to what purpose is that limitation committed to writing; if these limits may, at any time, be passed by those intended to be restrained?”
Whenever the Supreme Court has deviated from this standard and assumed a right to effectively reinterpret the Constitution, it has typically resulted in social unrest and distrust of governmental institutions. For instance, in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) decision, the Supreme Court went further than the Constitution’s plain and original meaning by ruling that both free and enslaved black Americans were excluded from the privileges of citizenship. While this decision was meant to finally settle the divisive issue of slavery, it ultimately only further divided the North and South, helping fan the flames of the coming Civil War (Carey). Similar instances have happened in modern times. The Supreme Court’s declarations of Constitutional rights to abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973) and gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) have increased the partisan divide in the nation and eroded trust in the Court’s legitimacy (“Negative Views of Supreme Court…”).
Return to Meaning
In summary, the Constitution ought to be interpreted according to its original meaning to protect the substance of our Constitutional rights and republic. Interpreting the Constitution under an originalist manner would also prevent the emptying of meaning and resultant social disorder that historically comes from Supreme Court Justices interpreting in a non-originalist manner. Once the Supreme Court is composed of Justices whose first allegiance is to rightly interpret the Constitution according to its original meaning, it will be on its way to regaining its previous exalted status as the most honorable court in the American republic.