Keeping Faith

A master class in public meaning originalism, delivered by the US Supreme Court’s Justice Elena Kagan

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered its decision in Chiafalo v Washington, upholding the constitutionality of a state statute imposing fines on “faithless” presidential electors ― those who do not vote for the candidate who won their state’s popular vote. The majority judgment, given by Justice Kagan for a seven-judge majority (and indeed unanimous on some key points), should be of some interest to Canadian readers for what it says about constitutional interpretation and, in particular, about the role of conventions and practice. As others, notably Josh Blackman over at the Volokh Conspiracy, have noted, Justice Kagan’s opinion is a thoroughly, and intelligently, originalist ― which should remind skeptics of originalism inclined to dismiss it as a partisan affectation that it is not.


As Justice Kagan explains,

Every four years, millions of Americans cast a ballot for a presidential candidate. Their votes, though, actually go toward selecting members of the Electoral College, whom each State appoints based on the popular returns. Those few “electors” then choose the President. (1)

But what is it that ensures that the vote of the Electors is aligned with that of the electorate? The text of the Constitution of the United States says little on this. Article II, §1, cl 2 provides that

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

Nothing here suggests that the Electors are bound to follow the popular vote; indeed, nothing here suggests that a popular vote need be held at all. At least some of the framers of the Constitution expected the Electors to exercise their personal discernment in choosing the President. Alexander Hamilton’s vision, in Federalist No. 68, is the best known. He hoped that the President would be chosen

by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

But this is not how things worked out. As Justice Kagan puts it, “[a]lmost immediately, presidential electors became trusty transmitters of other people’s decisions”. (13) This was the result of the development of political parties, not anticipated ― indeed feared ― when the Constitution was being drafted. George Washington was elected without meaningful opposition. But, once he retired, presidential elections were contested by parties. As Justice Kagan explains, initially

state legislatures mostly picked the electors, with the majority party sending a delegation of its choice to the Electoral College. By 1832, though, all States but one had introduced popular presidential elections. … At first, citizens voted for a slate of electors put forward by a political party, expecting that the winning slate would vote for its party’s presidential (and vice presidential) nominee in the Electoral College. By the early 20th century, citizens in most States voted for the presidential candidate himself; ballots increasingly did not even list the electors.

The alignment between the popular and the electoral votes (within each State, of course, there being, as we know, no necessary alignment at the national level) was thus secured by a combination of State law and partisanship ― but also by what looks, to an observer based in a Westminster-type constitutional system, an awful lot like constitutional convention. Law allowed partisans to be appointed as electors, and partisanship motivated them to vote for their party’s candidate. But so too did a sense of propriety, of moral obligation. This moral obligation, explains why those electors who, from time to time, broke with their party were called “faithless”. There is normally nothing “faithless”, except to a rabid partisan, about putting country ahead of party. But something greater than partisanship is at stake in the presidential election ― nothing less, indeed, than democratic principle itself. And “convention” is what Westminster systems call the settled practice of constitutional actors rooted in constitutional principle.

Some States, though, felt that relying on convention was not enough, and legislated to back up the electors’ moral duty with a threat of punishment. According to Mr Chiafalo, they could not do so constitutionally. After all, the Constitution’s framers meant for them to exercise their own judgment, guided but not fettered by that of the voters. And the very vote “elector” connotes the exercise of a personal choice.


Not so, says Justice Kagan. For her, “the power to appoint an elector (in any manner) includes power to condition his appointment—that is, to say what the elector must do for the appointment to take effect”. (9) A “demand that the elector actually live up to his pledge, on pain of penalty” (10) is nothing more than a condition of appointment, which nothing in the Constitution’s text prohibits. Justice Thomas, concurring (with the agreement of Justice Gorsuch), disagrees with this approach. For him, imposing such conditions is not part of the original meaning of the power of choosing the “manner” of the electors’ appointment. Instead, the States’ ability to do so comes from the structure of the Constitution, which preserves their powers unless expressly limited, and from the Tenth Amendment, which codifies the same principle. Justice Thomas makes some compelling points, but this disagreement is not so important for Canadian readers ― or, for that matter, for practical purposes.

What matters most is Justice Kagan’s firm rejection of an appeal to the purported authority of the Framers’ supposed expectation that “the Electors’ votes [would] reflect their own judgments”. (12) This rejection is firmly rooted in original public meaning originalism:

even assuming other Framers shared that outlook, it would not be enough. Whether by choice or accident, the Framers did not reduce their thoughts about electors’ discretion to the printed page. All that they put down about the electors was what we have said: that the States would appoint them, and that they would meet and cast ballots to send to the Capitol. Those sparse instructions took no position on how independent from—or how faithful to—party and popular preferences the electors’ votes should be. (12-13)

This is a great passage. For one thing, it refers to an important reason for being suspicious about the intentions and expectations of constitutional framers: they might not all have agreed with those whose views are on the record. For another, there is an allusion, which I personally find delightful, to Hamilton’s rather hubristic suggestion, in the first paragraph of the Federalist No. 1 that the U.S. Constitution would

decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Justice Kagan understands, as Hamilton did not (or at least affected not to) that choice and accident are not so easily disentangled, even in constitutional reflection. Most importantly, though, Justice Kagan drives home the point that “thoughts” “not reduce[d] … to the printed page”― or, more precisely, the enacted page ― do not bind. Justice Thomas specifically concurs with the majority on this point, explaining that “the Framers’ expectations aid our interpretive inquiry only to the extent that they provide evidence of the original public meaning of the Constitution. They cannot be used to change that meaning.” For all its reputation of being incorrigibly politically divided the Supreme Court of the United States is unanimous on this.

Justice Kagan goes on to make another argument, which is less straightforwardly originalist. She appeals to what she regards as the settled practice ― and what I have suggested we may regard as the convention ― of electors casting their ballots only to ratify the voters’ choice, rather than to make their own. “From the first”, Justice Kagan points, “States sent them to the Electoral College … to vote for preselected candidates, rather than to use their own judgment. And electors (or at any rate, almost all of them) rapidly settled into that non-discretionary role.” (14)

It is not quite clear how much weight this should carry on a proper originalist interpretation. In a post at Volokh, Keith Whittington suggests (based on an article which Justice Kagan actually cited ― for another point) that

we should think of this tradition of pledged electors as a “constitutional construction” that is consistent with the constitutional text but not required by the constitutional text. …  But that by itself does not tell us whether such constructions can be leveraged to empower state legislatures to punish or replace faithless electors or whether this longstanding norm has fixed the meaning of the text in a way that cannot be altered by future changes in our shared practices. How constitutional text and tradition interact is a difficult conceptual problem, and the Court’s opinion highlights that problem without doing very much to explain how it ought to be resolved.

Indeed, I’m not sure that the argument from practice or convention has a great deal of weight for Justice Kagan: she might only be making it to turn the tables on Mr. Chiafalo, who invoked the (quite exceptional, as Justice Kagan shows) example of past “faithless electors” to argue that it proves that the Constitution protected their autonomy.

But Justice Kagan does suggest what I think is a good reason why the argument should have weight in the particular circumstances of this case: the practice, and arguably even the convention, forms part of the context to a constitutional text ― namely, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment, “grew out of a pair of fiascos” (14) at the elections of 1796 and 1800. Prior to it, electors cast two votes; the candidate who received the most became president, and the next one, vice-president. In 1796 the top two candidates were “bitter rivals” (14) John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. In 1800, Jefferson, his party’s intended presidential candidate, was tied by its intended vice-president, Aaron Burr, as the electors who supported the one all supported the other. To prevent this reoccurring, the presidential and vice-presidential ballots were split. Justice Kagan points out that, in this way, “[t]he Twelfth Amendment embraced” party politics, “both acknowledging and facilitating the Electoral College’s emergence as a mechanism not for deliberation but for party-line voting”. (14)

The issue isn’t quite the same as the one that, as I argue in a recent article about which I blogged here, the Supreme Court of Canada faced in the Senate Reform Reference, 2014 SCC 32, [2014] 1 SCR 704. There, the original public meaning of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 had to be established by referring to conventions. In Chiafolo, conventions are not necessary to establish the original meaning of the Twelfth Amendment. But it is arguably fair to say that the Twelfth Amendment implicitly ratifies them, or takes them into account; while it might have been written as it was in the absence of conventions, the fact that is that it was written as it was because the conventions existed. As a result, Justice Kagan’s appeal to practice, or to convention, is, at least, less troubling here than it might have been in the absence of something like the Twelfth Amendment.


All in all, then, her opinion is an interesting demonstration of what good originalism looks like ― and also of the fact that it can be practiced by a judge who is nobody’s idea of a conservative or a libertarian, and with the agreement of her colleagues, including those whose ideological leanings are quite different from hers. Justice Kagan may or may not be correct: at the Originalism Blog, Michael Ramsay argues that she is not. But that does not matter so much to me. As Asher Honickman recently argued in response to another American decision, textualist ― and originalist ― interpretive methods do not promise complete legal certainty, but they are still valuable because (among other things) they narrow the scope of possible disagreements, and do provide more certainty than alternatives. Justice Kagan and her colleagues show us how to keep faith with a constitutional text. We should pay attention.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy 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.

3 thoughts on “Keeping Faith”

  1. I admit I didn’t read the judgment, only your discussion and the excerpts you set out.

    But my question is: where does Kagan J’s analysis rely on “original public meaning”? It strikes me more as an application of a “necessary implication” type of statutory interpretation — power to appoint necessarily includes power to include conditions on appointment — which doesn’t really depend on what the public originally understood.

    What am I missing?

    1. The public meaning point is, if you will, a “negative” one ― it’s the rejection of the argument that the term “electors” must be interpreted in a manner that incorporates the expectations of the framers. As both Justice Kagan and Justice Thomas note, only the public meaning of the term is binding, not the expectations that may have been associated with it.

      1. Maybe I’m still missing something, but what I’m wondering is: just because Kagan rejected the “expectations of the framers” argument, why does it follow that her approach is OPM originalism? In other words, just because she relies only on the public meaning as opposed to the subjective intentions of the framers, why does it follow that she has relied on the *original* public meaning?

        Having now reviewed her opinion in a bit more detail, I see nothing in it which relies on an analysis of how the relevant constitutional provisions would be understood specifically at the time of their enactment, as opposed to simply analyzing how best to interpret them now or at any time (in other words, nothing in the analysis depends on a particular point in time for the analysis which I understand to be a defining element of the originalist approach). It seems much more textualist to me than anything else, specifically the final few paragraphs of section A.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s