Three Simple Reasons Why the “Constitutional Originalism”
of Brett Kavanaugh is a Judicial Fraud and
a Pseudo-Legal Cover for Radical Right-Wing Politics
Prologue: I am writing this essay on September 25, 2018. Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans are currently in the midst of a furious effort to push through the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. Kavanaugh is a self-proclaimed “Constitutional Originalist” which, in his case, means that he thinks the United States Constitution should be interpreted according to the meaning of the words in the Constitution as they were understood at the time of its drafting and ratification. Kavanaugh is currently a federal judge, having been appointed by George W. Bush, but he also has a long history before that as a radical right-wing Republican Party operative. He claims to be an Originalist but he brings a radical right-wing ideology to his judicial work.
The theory of Constitutional Originalism is a recent development in American history, dating only from the 1970’s. Its development coincided with the emergence during that same period of the present-day radical right-wing of American politics, the people who brought us the Tea Party and more recently Donald Trump. Radical right-wingers generally entertain a Social Darwinian approach to society, a libertarian approach to government, and a laissez-faire approach to the economy. They believe in a dog-eat-dog world in which the rich should rule and the role of the government is to protect the successful rich from the envious poor. They think of themselves as protectors of freedom against communistic liberals, proponents of excellence against the mediocrity of the masses, and saviors of Western Civilization against the immigrant hordes.
Although right-wingers are often lumped together with conservatives and both are electorally represented by the Republican Party, their ideas and goals are not conservative. Conservatives tend to support the status quo and accept most of the progressive reforms of the twentieth century. Right-wingers are radicals who reject the reforms of the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society, and want to incite a counterrevolution that would essentially hurl American society back to the nineteenth century.
Constitutional Originalists represent the judicial side of this radical right-wing movement. The late Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas have been radical right-wing proponents of Originalism on the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh would ostensibly follow in Scalia’s footsteps. The purpose of this essay to demonstrate that despite its exposition by supposedly learned members of the high court, Constitutional Originalism is patently nonsense and merely a pseudo-legal cover for the radical right-wing political views of these men. There are many reasons the Originalist theory is false and even fraudulent. I will outline three simple reasons that I think are sufficiently conclusive.
This is really simple. Originalists say that we should interpret the language of the Constitution exactly as the Founders who wrote it would have interpreted it. The problem is that there is no way of knowing exactly what the founders meant by the words they used. There were no American dictionaries at the time and there is no other way of finding out. But linguistics and etymology are not the real concerns of the Originalists.
Originalists are more concerned with legal results than with linguistics. Originalism arose in opposition to the “living document” theory of Constitutional interpretation that has long been held by the majority of judges and legal scholars. According to the “living document” theory, the provisions and words of the Constitution should be interpreted in conformance with the changing circumstances of American society. As social institutions and norms change, interpretations should change. On that basis, the Supreme Court found, for example, a right to privacy in the Constitution during the 1960’s and 1970’s that had not previously been declared and used that right as the basis for finding a Constitutional right to contraception and abortion. Originalism has largely been motivated by opposition to the Court’s finding that the Constitution guarantees rights to privacy and abortion, as has been the right-wing movement generally.
Originalists object to the “living document” theory on the grounds that it undermines the rationale for having a written Constitution and gives judges the power to change the Constitution at will. They claim it condemns us to a government of fickle men rather than fixed laws. In this regard, Originalists argue that the “living document” theory destroys the principle of stare decisis, the principle that once something is decided, you should not revisit and revise the decision. Stare decisis ensures continuity and peace in the law, and it is one of the key principles of the English Common Law from which American common law and constitutional law has evolved. Without stare decisis, the law becomes a free-for-all struggle in which might makes right.
In claiming that the “living document” theory abjures stare decisis, Originalists are complaining that it leaves constitutional principles uncertain and subject to partisan changes every time membership on the Supreme Court changes. This is the reasoning that Originalists use when, for example, they argue that the death penalty should not be condemned under the “cruel and unusual” punishment clause of the Constitution. If hanging was good enough for the Founders when they composed that clause, it should be good enough for us today.
There are many flaws in the Originalist argument. To take an obvious one, the way in which we generally determine the meaning of words is through consulting a dictionary. Dictionaries were invented as a means of standardizing the meanings and spellings of words so that we can have a reasonable idea of what each person is saying when we communicate with each other. When Noah Webster issued the first comprehensive dictionary of American words in the early 1800’s, his goal was to eliminate the chaos of meanings and spellings that existed in the country. There was no American dictionary in the country when the Constitution was drafted and ratified, and the fact is that residents of the various states had closer communications and cultural ties with England than with each other. So, colonists from different states did not necessarily mean the same things with the same words.
The fact that the Founders were able to agree to use the words that are in the Constitution does not mean they held the same views of those words. And there is no way of finding out because the Founders did not attach an explanatory statement to the Constitution, as most Legislatures do with the laws they enact today. The Founders seemingly left it to their descendants to decide what the words were going to mean to them. In this view, words are approached as symbols that need to be reinterpreted as the situations to which they refer change. Language as well as the law is viewed as living.
With respect to stare decisis, this principle has never been considered absolute and has always been qualified by the facts of changing circumstances. If the circumstances under which a decision has been made substantially change, then the basis for the original decision may no longer exist, and even the language in which the decision was couched may have changed meanings. As a result, the decision may need to be revisited and possibly revised, and a new consensus may need to be reached as to the meaning of the words in which the decision is articulated. The necessity of reinterpreting the law in light of changing circumstances, and the idea that the law is a living and evolving thing, is a basic principle of the common law and of statutory and constitutional interpretation.
And the Founders were fully aware of this principle of changing circumstances when they made the Constitution. The Revolution had stemmed from the fact that constitutional arrangements between England and the colonies that had been mutually acceptable in prior years were no longer working because the circumstances of both England and the colonies had substantially changed. And the dispute between England and the colonies focused on the different meanings they were giving to words — words such as “representation,” “taxation,” “domestic trade,” and “foreign trade” — about which they had previously agreed, but did so no longer.
Both the American colonists and the English were citing the same statutes and constitutional principles but using the words in ways that were different from each other and were different from how people had used them in the past. Meanings had changed with changing circumstances. Appeals to stare decisis satisfied neither side and did not resolve their differences. As a consequence, new decisions and new arrangements had to be made.
The Founders knew that meanings change as circumstances change. As a result, pretending to know what the Founders definitively meant by the words in the Constitution is not only impossible, and essentially a fraud, but runs counter to the Founders’ own intent. This conclusion leads to Reason #2.
Reason #2: Many of the key phrases and provisions in the Constitution are couched in relativistic terms for which there can be no definitive meaning.
This is simply obvious. The Constitution is couched in open-ended terms that do not lend themselves to definitive meanings, let alone the definitive meanings of the Founders. The Founders were not fools, and so they must have known that the Constitution would be subject to competing and changing interpretations.
The Constitution is a remarkably short document, which is probably one of the reasons for its longevity. It is full of abstract and flexible terms that have to be interpreted and that acquire new meanings as circumstances change. Many of the most important provisions can have no fixed meaning. Phrases such as “due process,” “equal protection,” “cruel and unusual punishment,” “establishment of religion,” and “speedy trial,” among many others, can only be defined pragmatically to fit the times, places, and circumstances in which they are applied. And the Ninth Amendment, which provides that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the People,” is an open invitation for future generations to discover new Constitutionally protected rights as circumstances change.
The meaning of “due process,” for example, depends upon what process people think is due in a particular time, place, and circumstance. The flexibility of the term is not, however, infinite. There is a long history in Anglo-American law as to what sort of process is due in various situations. Based on the principle of stare decisis and on the importance of precedents generally in American law, any determination as to what is due process in a situation must start with past determinations. Then, any deviation from those past determinations must be justified by facts and reasons as to how changing circumstances require the new interpretation. The meaning of the phrase “due process” should not, in this way, be subject merely to the whims of fickle men or partisan politics.
In the “living document” approach, the words used by the Founders set the parameters for Constitutional interpretation. As such, you should not be able to use Orwellian double-speak to contradict the Founders’ words. “Equal” in the Constitution’s equal protection clauses, for instance, should not be construed to mean unequal. At the same time, the word “equal” does not necessarily mean “the same,” so there is room within the concept of equal protection to come to different and changing interpretations of the phrase, albeit not infinite room.
In Anglo-American law, interpretation has historically been guided and limited by the “reasonable person” standard. Since we are all products of our times, places and circumstances, and our judgments will be affected thereby, perfect objectivity is impossible and some subjectivity is inevitable. At the same time, unfettered subjectivity is unacceptable as it would result in the fickleness and partisanship about which the Constitutional Originalists claim to be concerned. So, the golden mean of interpretation is the reasonable person. An interpretation is acceptable if it conforms with what a reasonable person in that time, place and circumstance would conclude. “Reasonable person” is a consensus benchmark, albeit one that is constantly being challenged and revised. And as consensus on the idea and ideal of the reasonable person evolves, interpretations of the Constitution and other laws can legitimately evolve.
We have historically seen this evolution in cases dealing with public school segregation. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decided in 1896 that equality under the law did not require integrated schools, and permitted segregated schools so long as they provided reasonably equal opportunities for education. In the highly charged racial circumstances of that time, in which many white people, especially in the South, did not want to provide any public education at all for blacks, the Court deemed “separate but equal” a reasonable compromise.
In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court in 1954 decided that segregated schools had not proven to provide equal educational opportunities and, thereby, violated the requirement of equal protection under the law. The Court also concluded that segregation was by its nature unequal and unreasonable. Changing circumstances had led reasonable people to a changed interpretation. The “reasonable person” in 1954 was effectively more knowledgeable and less racist than in 1896.
Along with stare decisis, the idea of a living law, and the reasonable person standard of interpretation, another basic principle of American law has been the presumption that people intend the natural consequences of their actions. The Founders created a Constitution that requires interpretation and that for the last two hundred thirty years has been treated as a living document subject to changing interpretation as circumstances have changed. Given the way the Constitution was drafted and filled with abstract and flexible clauses, the Founders seemingly got what they intended, a living and evolving document. The attempt by Originalists to radically regress Constitutional interpretation back to the 1780’s is at best a hopeless attempt to put the genie back in the bottle, and more likely a fraud in which they themselves don’t really believe. This conclusion leads to Reason #3.
Reason #3: Judges claiming to be Originalists regularly violate their supposed Originalism to uphold radical right-wing rulings. And that’s what definitively makes it a fraud.
This is simply embarrassing. Justices Scalia and Thomas and would-be Justice Kavanaugh can wax eloquent about Originalism when they are using it as a pretext to strike down some progressive interpretation of the Constitution or some progressive legislation, but they are complete hypocrites when it comes to upholding right-wing interpretations and laws. I will cite only three well-known examples.
The first is the idea that money is speech under the First Amendment, and that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech permits a person to spend as much money as the person wants on political campaigns and political contributions. This interpretation makes any serious campaign finance regulations almost impossible and leaves American politics a plaything for the rich. It is consistent with the Social Darwinian principles of the radical right-wing in America which hold that the rich should rule and those who own the country should run it.
Although the Founders were themselves elitists, the idea that money would be considered the equivalent of speech and that the Constitution would promote unlimited spending in politics was unthinkable to them. When the Founders drafted the Constitution, they hoped to keep political campaigning out of America altogether. The historical record is clear that they hoped the country would naturally choose the best and brightest to hold political office, without political parties or partisan campaigning. The Electoral College, for example, was originally supposed to be a colloquium of the best people who would choose the President and Vice President based on who they thought would be best for the country.
Moreover, to the Founders speech was people speaking, not money talking. There is nothing either in the Constitution or in anything the Founders have left us to reach the conclusion that spending money was considered by them to be protected First Amendment speech. Such a conclusion is not merely faulty Constitutional interpretation and bad public policy, it is a gross departure from any Originalist interpretation. Self-styled Originalists, such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, have, however, consistently supported such an interpretation.
The second example, which follows from the first, is the idea that corporations are “persons” under the Constitution, that they deserve the civil rights protections of persons, and that, in particular, they have the First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. This idea is literally nonsense on its face and completely contrary to any intention of the Founders.
It is nonsense because it is universally acknowledged that private corporations are merely legal fictions that are created under state laws and that have no right or reason to exist unless allowed by state laws. There is nothing in the concept of a corporation that resembles the human beings who are protected as persons in the Constitution. There is also nothing in the Constitution about corporations and there are no private federal corporations. When the Constitution was drafted, some states didn’t even allow private corporations. Those states that allowed them kept them under strict control as to what they could do, how big they could become, and how long they could exist. Nothing could be farther from the concept of a “person” in the Constitution.
Corporation law developed during the mid-nineteenth century, and the regulations governing them became looser over time. Today, however, each state still has its own corporate law, so that there are fifty different definitions of a corporation, and a corporation can exist only if a state allows for it. That is not a person. That’s a thing or a mechanism.
In any case, the Founders had a deep distrust of corporations and hoped they would be used only for public projects that no individual or group of individuals could otherwise undertake. The historical record is absolutely clear on this. As a result, the idea of giving corporations the rights of human persons under the Constitution would have been anathema to the Founders. Nonetheless, self-proclaimed Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh consistently support this interpretation of the Constitution, a misinterpretation that is consistent with their radical right-wing political views.
The third example is the idea that the Second Amendment provides individuals the right to own and keep handguns and rifles in their homes for personal self-protection, and to own and carry handguns and assault weapons in public. This is nonsense on its face and would have been inconceivable to the Founders. Among the many reasons, I will cite four simple ones.
The first reason is that guns in those days were muzzle-loading, which meant that you had to pour gunpowder down the gun’s barrel for each shot you took. This, in turn, meant you had to have a bag of gunpowder handy in order to shoot your gun. The problem is that gunpowder in those days was extremely volatile. It might explode with the slightest change in the humidity or barometric pressure. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that additives were discovered that made gunpowder safe to store. As a result, few people during the 1780’s were foolish or foolhardy enough to want to keep a bag of gunpowder in their home. In turn, few people would have had any reason to keep guns in their home. So, the Founders would not have conceived the Second Amendment as protecting the right to keep a gun in one’s home since almost no one did.
The second reason is that guns in those days were a very inefficient means of self-protection. Guns had to be reloaded after every shot, and reloading took several minutes – which would be very inconvenient if you missed your attacker with your first shot. In addition, most guns were smooth-bored muskets that were extremely inaccurate. To shoot them, lead balls were shoved down the barrel with some gunpowder. When the gunpowder was ignited with a match, the ball would rattle down the barrel and wobble into the air. It was almost impossible for even the most practiced gunman to hit anything at which he was aiming if it was more that a few feet away.
Muskets were effective weapons when shot en masse simultaneously by one bunch of people in a line at another bunch of people. What was in effect a wall of lead would emerge from the group of shooters and would mow down the other group. It did not matter that no one hit the person at whom he was aiming because as part of the wall of lead, each person’s ball would likely hit someone. That is why most military attacks in those days consisted of lines of musketeers shooting at each other. Muskets were good only if you were in a group, such as a militia, not if you were shooting by yourself.
As a result of the inefficiency of guns for personal self-defense, few people, and very few townspeople, owned guns. They relied, instead, on spears and hatchets for self-defense. Militias stored guns and gunpowder in armories that were generally a safe distance away from the populace of a town. That is why British soldiers were marching to Lexington and Concord when the shot that was supposedly heard around the world and that ostensibly signaled the beginning of the American Revolution was fired at them. The British were aiming to confiscate guns and gunpowder of the local militias that were stored in armories in those towns.
That first shot probably missed its target, as did most of the subsequent shots fired by colonists hiding behind trees as the British marched eighteen miles down the road. Some four thousand colonists fired almost continuously all day long at around fifteen hundred British soldiers who were in the open and at relatively close range. As a result, seventy-three soldiers were killed and 174 were wounded. There could not be a better illustration of the inefficiency of guns in those days, and why people did not carry guns around with them or keep them in their homes. It is insulting to think that the Founders would have promoted a Constitutional amendment to protect gun rights that nobody wanted.
The third reason, which follows from the first two, is that the wording of the Second Amendment clearly applies the right to bear arms to militias and not to individual persons. That wording and that meaning clearly follow from the historical facts recited above about guns and gun ownership, facts that any Originalist smart enough to be on the Supreme Court should know.
The fourth reason is that the Founders could have had no idea of the weapons of mass destruction and the mass production of those weapons that exist today and that the Supreme Court has proclaimed to be protected by the Second Amendment. The Founders could not have anticipated assault weapons. So, according to an Originalist interpretation, the Constitution could not conceivably protect the right to own them.
Nonetheless, despite the obviousness of these reasons, so-called Originalists such as Scalia, Thomas, and Kavanaugh, in a manner that is inconsistent with their Originalism but consistent with their radical right-wing political agendas, support gun ownership rights that the Founders could not have intended and that the words of the Second Amendment could not mean.
Conclusion. Fraud at the highest levels is the highest level of fraud. Originalism is just such a fraud. It is so obviously lame that it would be pathetic if it weren’t so harmful.
 I have written a blog post on this website that discusses the development of the differences between conservatives and right-wingers. It is “Do unto others before they do unto you: The Devolution of Conservatism from Burke to Trump And the Evolution of Pragmatic Liberalism from Madison to Obama.”
I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #5:Perfecting a Government for an Imperfect Society in the 1780’s-1790’s:Was the Constitution a Mistake?”
 I have written a chapter on this in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake (Authorhouse, 2013). It is “Choice #8: General Incorporation Laws, 1830’s-1880’s: Was the Corporate Revolution Necessary and Proper?”
 I have written a blog post on this issue which is posted on this website. It is “History as Choice and the Second Amendment: Would you want to keep a musket in your house?”