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Constitutional Interpretation

Traditionalism Rising, Part II: Comparing (Liquidated) Originalism and Traditionalism


How is traditionalism similar to and different from originalism? And how does it relate to what some originalists call "liquidation"?

These questions are complicated by the capaciousness of originalism, which now encompasses many theories with diverse commitments. To narrow things down, we might compare originalism and traditionalism on the specific issue of the role (if any) of enduring practices.

Among originalists, there are disagreements about what evidence counts to ascertain the meaning of unclear text. Originalists who reject practices altogether are far from traditionalism. Those who accept practices as some evidence of original meaning are closer, though no originalist theory (so far as I know) takes enduring practices to be the primary determinants of meaning and law. None is the same as traditionalism.

As for endurance, one key difference concerns pre- and post-enactment practices. For traditionalists, such practices, their age, longevity, and density, will be centrally important, while for some originalists they will be irrelevant. Even for originalists who assign practices some role, the relative weighting will be different: practice-friendly originalists will assign more weight to practices at enactment than to pre- or post-enactment practices, while this is not so for traditionalists. Alternatively, when a self-identified originalist interpreter does weigh pre- and post-ratification practices heavily, that approach may drift toward traditionalism.

Some originalists consider a particular sort of practice-based evidence in what they call the "liquidation" of the original meaning of the text. Caleb Nelson describes a process by which judicial interpreters give unclear textual provisions one of several permissible constructions post-ratification, thereby "settling" meaning for subsequent interpreters. William Baude has elaborated the Madisonian concept of liquidation, in which three things are necessary to settle meaning: "indeterminacy, a course of deliberate practice, and settlement." For Madison, a "deliberate practice" had to be adequately deliberated—rationalized—and had also self-consciously to concern constitutional interpretation rather than mere "sheer political will." And as for liquidated "settlement," there is a sub-element of public sanction or ratification of the liquidated meaning.

In her Bruen concurrence, Justice Barrett observed that the Court should achieve greater clarity about what method it is using: "Scholars have proposed competing and potentially conflicting frameworks for this analysis, including liquidation, tradition, and precedent…. The limits on the permissible use of history may vary between these frameworks (and between different articulations of each one)." Justice Barrett is right. Traditionalism is not liquidated originalism (in the paper, I use "liquidated originalism" to describe an originalism that integrates liquidation).

First, traditionalism includes pre-ratification practices. Liquidated originalism, insofar as it is liquidated, has nothing to say about those. (It may have something to say about them insofar as it is originalist, but it will do so for reasons that differ from traditionalism.) If the age, longevity, and density of pre-ratification practices that extend through the post-ratification period (the period where traditionalism and liquidation overlap) are relevant, as the Court has said they are, it is traditionalism that offers a complete account of why and how.

Second, liquidated originalism aims at the settlement of textual meaning, which generally occurs (when it occurs) in a constrained time frame. That is because to settle original meaning, the liquidation must be evidence of original meaning, which weakens as it is removed from the ratifying moment. In the case of the Necessary and Proper Clause, within 40 years of enactment. In the case of the Spending Power, within less than 10-15 years. Traditionalism's emphasis on historical longevity as probative of meaning is no real part of liquidated originalism. A related difference concerns liquidated originalism's subject, which is the text's semantic meaning, rather than the constitutional law relating to the text. Liquidated originalism concerns the former, not the latter, while traditionalism concerns both.

Some examples. The enduring post-ratification practices of regulating off-premises signs, the possession of handguns in contexts threatening an "affray," abortion, and so on, could be called part of the semantic meaning of the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, and the Due Process Clause, respectively. But it would be more accurate to call them determinants of the constitutional law of these clauses. That is, liquidated originalism's short time horizon and its aspiration to settle meaning befits its narrow subject—the linguistic meaning of the text. Traditionalism's long time horizon and its focus on the age, longevity, and density of practices befits its broad subject—the law of the Constitution (which includes, but is not exhausted by, the text's meaning).

Furthermore, certain parts of constitutional law may have little to do with the liquidation of the semantic meaning of the text, and more to do with enduring practices. Consider the "anti-commandeering" doctrine, which prohibits the federal government from compelling states to enact or enforce federal law. The law of anti-commandeering does not much depend upon the liquidation of the semantic meaning of constitutional text (the Tenth Amendment, for example). It is instead formed by legal decisions allowing or disallowing states to engage in a host of concrete practices based on a historical understanding of the relevant powers and immunities of the state and federal players. Or consider the doctrine of state sovereign immunity, which the Court said in Alden v. Maine is not fully determined by the semantic meaning of the Eleventh Amendment, but instead by the "history" of "custom and practice."

A third difference concerns the sources of the relevant settling practices. Liquidated originalists tend to look to the federal judiciary (or state high courts) and the federal legislature, with illustrious figures like James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, or John Marshall often taking the settling role. Theirs are centralized practices of elite actors operating at the apex of American political power. State and local governments, and the people in their communities, have a subordinate role in "sanctioning" these practices. But their own practices, distributed across geographic time and space, spread widely across social class and rank, are not relevant. Traditionalism includes the enduring practices of national actors, though even here, the focus might be on comparatively minor figures and events in our national history. But by contrast with liquidated originalism, it also values the traditions of non-national persons and entities.

Furthermore, traditionalism, unlike liquidated originalism, depends upon the concurrence of diffuse sources of practice. When the Court in Bruen details the concurrence of 19th century state and territorial firearms regulations, observing outliers and achieving a collective sense of the regulatory landscape, it is aggregating the diffuse practices of individuals and localities across the nation to understand the Second Amendment's scope. It is not focusing on who prevailed in a disagreement between Madison and Hamilton at one discrete moment in history so as to settle constitutional meaning thereafter.

Fourth, and finally, liquidation's emphasis on "deliberated," rationalized, and self-consciously constitutional interpretive practices is different from traditionalism. This rationalistic feature of liquidation in some ways follows from liquidation's preferred sources—elite legal actors on the national stage—whose liquidations must be re-ratified and re-rationalized by subsequent elite actors. Yet why, one might ask against the traditionalist, should a practice that cannot be justified on thoughtful, rational grounds continue to endure?

The traditionalist response is that "thoughtful" interpretation in constitutional law has sometimes meant interpretation that favors and entrenches the preferences of the educational and cultural elites in American society. When the Court speaks of traditions being "deeply rooted in the Nation's history," it is adopting a constitutional approach more suited to the non-elites of American society. The sagacity of a people's diffuse practices and ways of life across time and geographic space has its own merits and claims. These are not less rational than the claims of elites (here, Burke was a force more for ill than good). Indeed, one might adopt a liquidationist locution in arguing that they are a convincing public "sanction" or reasoned avowal of constitutional meaning and law.