Text vs. Precedent in Constitutional Law

By Calabresi, Steven G. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Text vs. Precedent in Constitutional Law


Calabresi, Steven G., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


Conservative constitutional law scholarship is divided into two camps. First, there are the originalists and textualists like myself, Randy Barnett, John Harrison, Gary Lawson, Judge Michael McConnell, Michael Stokes Paulsen, Saikrishna Prakash, and, at times, Akhil Amar. This camp believes that the text of the Constitution, as it was originally understood, is controlling in most constitutional cases. Second, there are the followers of Supreme Court precedent, who sometimes argue incorrectly that they are Burkeans. (1) The latter group includes Charles Fried, Thomas Merrill, Ernie Young, and, in some respects, Richard Fallon. These scholars all follow the doctrine over the document and believe in a fairly robust theory of stare decisis in constitutional law. (2) The key case in recent times about which the textualists and the doctrinalists have dashed is Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. (3)

The argument in this Essay is that the doctrinalists are wrong in arguing for a strong theory of stare decisis for three reasons. First, there is nothing in the text, history, or original meaning of the Constitution that supports the doctrinalists' strong theory of stare decisis. Second, the actual practice of the U.S. Supreme Court is to not follow precedent, especially in important cases. In other words, precedent itself counsels against following precedent. And, third, a strong theory of stare decisis is a bad idea for policy reasons. Each of these three arguments is taken up in turn below.

I. TEXTUALIST AND ORIGINALIST ARGUMENTS

Both textualism and originalism supply arguments as to why following precedent is wrong. As for the text, it is striking that there is not a word in the Constitution that says in any way that precedent trumps the text. Article V specifically sets forth a procedure by which the constitutional text can be changed through the amendment process. (4) Amendment is the only process the constitutional text provides for making changes in the document. Five-to-four or even nine-to-zero Supreme Court decisions do not trump the text. Moreover, in the Supremacy Clause, the document says that the Constitution, laws, and treaties shall be the "supreme Law of the Land," (5) but makes no mention of Supreme Court decisions. It is clear that under the text of the Constitution the Supreme Court has no power to follow its own decisions when they conflict with the text. Moreover, the Supremacy Clause makes this Constitution the supreme law of the land, and this Constitution is the one that we know was submitted for ratification under Article VII. The text, then, simply does not support a strong theory of stare decisis.

The original history of the Constitution leads to the same conclusion. Records from the Philadelphia Convention and of the ratification debates do not mention anywhere a power of the Supreme Court to follow precedent over constitutional text. (6) Had such a power been contemplated, surely it would have been discussed and debated during the heated and close fight over ratification of the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton does mention in Federalist No. 78 that the courts might sometimes be bound by precedents, but he does not assert a power to follow precedent where it plainly conflicts with the text. (7) At most, Hamilton's comment and a few other early comments like it suggest a power to follow past interpretations of the constitutional text which are plausible and not in contradiction to the text. (8) No one in the Framing generation, not even the most committed Anti-Federalists, imagined a doctrine of stare decisis trumping the constitutional text of the kind the Justices found in Casey. (9)

Moreover, early practice under the Constitution shows that the Framers themselves did not follow a strict theory of stare decisis on the most significant constitutional issue of their day--the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States. It is worth rehearsing quickly the history of the debate over the constitutionality of the Bank during the first forty years of the Republic.

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