The Gravitational Force of Originalism

By Randy E. Barnett

In Part I of this Article, I describe four aspects of the New Originalism: First, New Originalism is about identifying the original public meaning of the Constitution rather than the original Framers’ intent. Second, the interpretive activity of identifying the original public meaning of the text is a purely descriptive empirical inquiry. Third, there is also a normative tenet of the New Originalism that contends that the original public meaning of the text should be followed. Finally, distinguishing between the activities of interpretation and construction identifies the limit of the New Originalism, which is only a theory of interpretation. In Part II, I then discuss how originalism can influence the outcome of such cases as District of Columbia v. Heller, McDonald v. City of Chicago, and National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (NFIB). I suggest that, so long as there are justices who accept the relevance of original meaning, originalism can exert a kind of “gravitational force” on legal doctrine even when, as in McDonald and NFIB, the original meaning of the Constitution appears not to be the basis of a judicial decision.