Towards a Common Law Originalism

Bernadette A. Meyler, Cornell Law School


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Originalists’ emphasis upon William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England tends to suggest that the common law of the Founding era consisted in a set of determinate rules that can be mined for the purposes of constitutional interpretation. This Article argues instead that disparate strands of the common law, some emanating from the colonies and others from England, some more archaic and others more innovative, co-existed at the time of the Founding. Furthermore, jurists and politicians of the Founding generation were not unaware that the common law constituted a disunified field; indeed, the jurisprudence of the common law suggested a conception of its identity as much more flexible and susceptible to change than originalists posit.

The alternative that this Article proposes—“common law originalism”—treats the strands of eighteenth-century common law not as providing determinate answers that fix the meaning of particular constitutional clauses bu! t instead as supplying the terms of a debate about certain concepts, framing questions for judges but refusing to settle them definitively. It likewise suggests that the interpretation of common law phrases should be responsive to certain alterations in external conditions, rather than static and inflexible. Situated between living constitutionalism and originalism as currently practiced, common law originalism attempts to square fidelity to the Founding era with fidelity to its common law jurisprudence—a jurisprudence that retained continuity yet emphasized flexibility and was inclusive enough to hold disparate legal conceptions in its embrace.