Will Heller Implode?

Slate's blog on legal issues.
June 29 2008 11:25 PM

Will Heller Implode?

Revolutionary ideologies always look good until they prevail; then their latent seeds of destruction sprout and conflagrate. Such is the case with originalism, and Heller provides an opportunity to see this process in action. To see why, imagine that, to the surprise of everyone, Clarence Thomas retires from the court next year and President Obama replaces him with a moderately liberal lawyer whom I will call X. In X's first term, another Second Amendment case reaches the Supreme Court. X reads the majority and dissenting opinions of Heller and decides that Justice Stevens' dissent makes the better originalist case. He writes a new majority opinion that adopts Stevens' dissent and overturns Heller .

What is the Heller -supporting originalist to say about this behavior? He can argue until blue in his face that Scalia was right and Stevens was wrong, but Stevens' account was plausible enough to obtain the support of three other justices and various knowledgeable commentators. What he can't plausibly argue is that X should have respected the Heller precedent. After all, if originalism means anything, it must be that precedents should be given no, or little, weight. This idea is the source of originalism's power and radical nature, but it also ensures that originalist opinions will, as precedents themselves, be short-lived. And because the constitutional text is ambiguous and the contemporary setting is remote from our understanding, it will always be as easy for liberals as for conservatives to generate whatever results they want in the originalist idiom, which guarantees that the triumph of originalism, if that is what Heller represents, will have no particular political implications for American government that cannot be traced to the ideological leanings of whoever happens to sit on the Supreme Court. Policy and political judgments will continue as before muffled underneath a new blanket of rhetoric. That faint sound you hear is laughter echoing in the tombs of the legal realists.

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Justice Scalia, aware of this problem, calls himself a "faint-hearted" originalist and acknowledges that certain precedents must be obeyed. But which? Why should his Heller opinion constrain a future liberal justice who thinks that its originalist interpretation is wrong? If the answer is that this justice should follow it just because Scalia was there first, then it is inevitable that, as precedents reflecting good-faith but erroneous interpretations of original sources or bad-faith manipulations of them pile up, doctrine will eventually diverge from origin, and originalism will become moot. If the answer is that he shouldn't, then precedents will last only as long as the current majority on the Supreme Court, and the Heller precedent, too. Either way, originalism cannot last.

Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, is author of The Twilight of International Human Rights Law. Follow him on Twitter.