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Understanding Public Meaning Originalism

Professor Lawrence Solum explains that when the Constitution was proposed and ratified, citizens throughout the United States met to discuss the meaning of the document. Public Meaning Originalism posits that this public understanding of the text, at the time it was created, is crucial for faithfully interpreting the Constitution. https://youtube.com/watch?v=_cy6Ot2zd-c


The first three words of the constitutional text are, "We the people." Article Four of the Constitution includes a Republican form of government clause. The Constitution itself is explicitly committed to a res publica, a public government. There's another reason to think that the meaning of the constitutional text is its meaning for the public. The process of ratification of the Constitution drafted in 1787 was intensely public. Town meetings were held throughout the United States, and at these meetings, members of the public, ordinary people, got together, and they debated the constitutional text, and then elected representatives to state ratifying conventions. This process of constitutional ratification was intensely public. The Constitution was not ratified by lawyers. The Constitution was not ratified by professional politicians in state legislatures. The Constitution was ratified by the public assembled in conventions, in a process that was by the standards at the time, intensely public, and intensely democratic. Public meaning originalism, like other forms of originalism, is based on two fundamental ideas: the fixation thesis, the public meaning of the text is the meaning for the public at the time the text was written; the constraint principle, the public meaning of the constitutional text is binding. Judges must make decisions that are consistent with the constitutional text, and the principles of constitutional doctrine must be fairly traceable to the constitutional text. Public meaning originalism affirms a third thesis. I call this the public meeting thesis, the idea that the best understanding of the constitutional text is based on the meaning that the text had to the public. Chief Justice Marshall in a whole series of cases, including Gibbons v Ogden, takes the position that the Constitution was addressed to the public, that it is a document authored by the public, for the public, and therefore terms in the Constitution must be understood in their ordinary meanings.

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