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Originalism and the Law of the Past

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 August 2019


Originalism has long been criticized for its “law office history” and other historical sins. But a recent “positive turn” in originalist thought may help make peace between history and law. On this theory, originalism is best understood as a claim about our modern law--which borrows many of its rules, constitutional or otherwise, from the law of the past. Our law happens to be the Founders' law, unless lawfully changed. This theory has three important implications for the role of history in law. First, whether and how past law matters today is a question of current law, not of history. Second, applying that current law may often require deference to historical expertise, but for a more limited inquiry: one that looks specifically at legal doctrines and instruments, interprets those instruments in artificial ways, and makes use of evidentiary principles and default rules when the history is obscure. Third, ordinary legal reasoning already involves the application of old law to new facts, an inquiry that might otherwise seem daunting or anachronistic. Applying yesterday's “no vehicles in the park” ordinance is no less fraught--and no more so--than applying Founding-era legal doctrines.

Invited Article
Copyright © the American Society for Legal History, Inc. 2019 

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The authors are grateful to Jud Campbell, Michael McConnell, Zachary Price, Richard Re, Amanda Schwoerke, and Lael Weinberger for advice and comments, and to Andrew Lowdon, Stephanie Pearl, and Robert Schenck for excellent research assistance.


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