Constitutional Interpretation and Public Reason: Seductive Disanalogies

In Silje Langvatn, Wojciech Sadurski & Mattias Kumm (eds.), Public Reason and Courts. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 323-349 (2020)
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Theorists of public reason such as John Rawls often idealize constitutional courts as exemplars of public reason. This paper raises questions about the seduction and limits of analogies between theorists’ account of public reason and actual constitutional jurisprudence. Examining the work product of the United States Supreme Court, the paper argues that while it does engage in reason-giving to support its decisions—as the public reason strategy suggests— those reasons are (largely) legalistic and specifically juristic reasons—not the theorists’ idealized moral-political reasons on matters of fundamental principle. But if constitutional courts do not engage on matters of fundamental principle, then a public reason strategy for assuaging democratic worries about judicial review would no longer be open: prominent liberal and deliberative democratic theorists could no longer point to the alleged superiority of constitutional courts to speak in the name of, and for, the people’s shared political principles. The paper extends beyond the U.S. case study by pointing to three institutional factors explaining the disanalogy between what some constitutional courts do and what public reason theories require them to do. It concludes with considerations about whether the public reason strategy might be more successfully applied to international courts.

Author's Profile

Christopher Zurn
University of Massachusetts, Boston


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