An Originalism for North Freedonia

Thoughts on an essay on “Originalism without Text” by Stephen Sachs ― and its relevance to Canada

The latest issue of the Yale Law Journal includes a short but very interesting essay by Stephen Sachs, “Originalism without Text“. To be an originalist, prof. Sachs argues, is not just (or mostly) “to read words in a particular way”. (157) It is to attach special significance to the legal past, indeed to “treat[e] modern law as vulnerable to history as open to refutation by claims about the past”. (158) This claim matters for originalist theory but, and this is the point on which I want to focus here, it is especially important for any attempt to give an originalist account of the Canadian constitution.

Prof. Sachs asks us to imagine a hypothetical polity, Freedonia, that “has no writing and no written law”. (159) Its law, such as it is, is an oral tradition transmitted from generation to generation. If Freedonia decides to designate a particular point in the evolution of this tradition as a reference, and to say that no deviation from the law as it then stood is to be tolerated, then, says Prof. Sachs, Freedonia is an originalist polity. If innovations are made, and criticized on account of departing from that historical reference, such criticism is originalist.

This is so regardless of the fact that the critics’ point is not about enforcing the meaning of a canonical legal text ― which is what originalism is often understood to be about. In Prof. Sachs’s view, what matters is not whether the critics are appealing to the authority of a legal text, but the fact that “[t]hey’re trying to recover the content of the law as it stood at a specific point in history, because they believe that this antique law determines the law as it stands today”. (161) Prof. Sachs points out that “[n]ot all law is written law, and not every society needs to rely on it in the same way”. (164) Indeed, even in those polities where “unwritten” law coexists with written documents, it is important not to make the mistake of “reading the text correctly while utterly misunderstanding the legal role it was to play”. (165)

Prof. Sachs’s main concern seems to be with how the term “originalism” itself is used. He writes that “Freedonia is just a hypothetical, and it’s also a special case. In the real world, where literacy is widespread and ink is plentiful, we tend to write these things down” (168) ― these things being the fundamental rules according to which the polity functions. But I would suggest that the real world is more varied, and Freedonia is less hypothetical that Prof. Sachs lets on.

Consider another polity ― call it North Freedonia ― whose fundamental rules are of two kinds. An important part was written down at a particular historical juncture, some 150 years ago, when important institutional reforms were undertaken. But these reforms, important though they were, were not meant to upend other rules that existed in the form of unwritten understandings. Indeed, when one part of the rules was being written down, this was done in a way that only made sense on the assumption that the other, unwritten, part of the rules would continue in force. Much later, 35 years ago, North Freedonia again changed its fundamental rules, including by agreeing on a procedure for future amendments to replace informally-developed arrangements that had previously been made for this purpose. Once again, however, the unwritten rules ― which had evolved somewhat but remained stable in some key ways over the intervening 115 years ― were left in place, and the newly-written rules, as much as those written down a century earlier, only made sense in light of the unwritten ones.

Can North Freedonia be originalist? Admittedly, scholars of high authority tell us that it is not. North Freedonian judges themselves tend not to think of themselves as being originalists; some loudly disparage the idea. But when they decide cases, their record is actually mixed. Though their decisions are far from consistently originalist, or consistently anything in particular, it is originalist rather more often than they care to admit. Still, could North Freedonians be consistent originalists even if they tried? On some views, those that Prof. Sachs challenges, the fact that some of their most important rules are not written down in authoritative texts would be a problem for them. Prof. Sachs argues forcefully and, in my view, convincingly, that these views are misguided. Though crucial aspects of North Freedonia’s constitution are unwritten, and though even the written parts rely on unwritten ones, North Freedonia could be originalist if it recognizes the authority of its past and accepts that claims about what it rules are today can be defeated by claims about what they were 35 or 150 years ago.

Now, some North Freedonians will object that Prof. Sachs’s theory is inapplicable to their polity, because it is about “recovering law” from the past ― and the unwritten rules of North Freedonia’s constitution are not actually laws, having been neither enacted in legislation nor laid down in judicial precedent. They are, instead, derived from the practice of North Freedonia’s political actors trying to exercise their discretionary powers in accordance with North Freedonia’s fundamental constitutional principles. But the objection is not convincing. The unwritten laws of Prof. Sachs’s Freedonia itself have never been enacted or, or at least for the most part, laid down in authoritative precedents. They are a tradition developed over time, up to a defined point in history, by the authorities responsible for its application. Though North Freedonia’s institutional arrangements are more complex than Freedonia’s, and include a measure of separation of powers, especially between judicial and other officials, the process by which its unwritten rules came to be, and thus their nature, is not relevantly different from those in Freedonia.

North Freedonias could be originalists if they wanted to.  Needless to say, that does not mean that they are, or prove that they ought to be. I’d say that they ought to give the idea some serious thought though. Jeffrey Pojanowski has outlined some very good reasons to do so in an excellent recent essay. But a fuller argument from me on that point must wait. Prof. Sachs’s conclusions are important in their own right, and an impetus for further reflection ― including in non-hypothetical polities.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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