Why Originalism Needs Critical Theory: Democracy, Language, and Social Power

Harvard Journal of Law and Gender 38 (2):437-459 (2015)
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Abstract
I argue here that the existence of hermeneutical injustice as a pervasive feature of our collective linguistic and conceptual resources undermines the originalist task at two levels: one procedural, one substantive. First, large portions of society were (and continue to be) systematically excluded from the process of meaning creation when the Constitution and its Amendments were adopted, so originalism relies on enforcement of a meaning that was generated through an undemocratic process. Second, the original meaning of some words in those texts may be substantively objectionable as a result because they fail to capture the relevant experiences of affected people at the time even if they accurately capture the conceptual understanding of reasonable people at the time, and this substantive failing may infect the text’s democratic legitimacy. To the extent that it can be overcome, overcoming this epistemic problem will require originalists to take seriously the insights of critical theory, understood in this Note as a normative inquiry into the historical context of the language and meaning of statutory text. Because originalists are already committed to a nominally descriptive inquiry into this context, and because this nominally descriptive inquiry masks the inherently normative aspects of the hermeneutical landscape, the switch to an explicitly normative inquiry may prove quite painless.
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