Has the U.S. Constitution Lost Its Meaning? A Debate

Law professors Randy Barnett and Michael Dorf argued over "originalism" at an event hosted by the Soho Forum.


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Should the U.S. Constitution be interpreted and applied according to the original meaning of its text?

On June 11, 2018, two leading constitutional legal scholars, Georgetown's Randy Barnett and Cornell's Michael Dorf, debated "originalism," which seeks to protect against arbitrary and personal interpretations by jurists, while making the law stable, predictable, and consistent in its application.

The debate was hosted by Reason and the Soho Forum, which runs Oxford-style debates, in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, and the side that gains more ground is victorious. The resolution was: "The U.S. Constitution should be interpreted and applied according to the original meaning communicated to the public by the words of the text."

Dorf won the debate by changing the minds of 20 percent of the attendees.

Barnett, arguing for the affirmative, is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Legal Theory at the Georgetown University Law Center and the director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. His books include Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the People and Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty. After taking a J.D. from Harvard Law School, he worked as a prosecutor in Chicago. Barnett is a Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute and the Goldwater Institute.

Dorf, for the negative, is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He is the editor, author, or co-author of six books, including On Reading the Constitution, with co-author Laurence Tribe. Since 2000, Dorf has written a bi-weekly column, currently appearing on Justia's Verdict. He also posts less formal legal analysis several times per week on his blog, Dorf on Law. After taking a JD from Harvard Law School, he served as a law clerk for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and then for Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court of the United States.

The event opened with a standup routine from comedian Dave Smith.

The Soho Forum is held every month at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan's East Village. The next debate, which is sold out, features Erik Voorhees and Peter Schiff on bitcoin and crypotcurrency. On August 27, William Easterly and Joseph Stiglitz will discuss whether free markets or government action is the best way to eliminate global poverty. You can buy tickets to that debate here.

You can catch all Soho Forum debates by subscribing to the Reason Podcast and our YouTube Channel.

Produced by Todd Krainin.

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