The United States, it is widely believed, is at a moment of constitutional crisis. At no time since the Civil War era has it seemed more likely that what James Madison called the “experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people”—the experiment in democratic constitutional self-governance—will fail. This article argues that one reason for this state of affairs is that the ‘people’ sense that they are no longer active participants in the experiment. While the historical etiology of this crisis is complex, and the forces involved not confined to the US, this article focuses on the crisis in the legitimacy of the Federal Judiciary—and the role that current orthodoxies in constitutional interpretation have played in fomenting that crisis.
The immediate critical target of this article is contemporary jurisprudential uses of what is called “public meaning originalism,” specifically, and ‘textualist originalism’ more broadly, as a theory for the interpretation of those clauses in the US Constitution that refer to fundamental rights and freedoms. This concern with “textualism,” however, is primarily diagnostic. For, despite its relative unpopularity among most contemporary legal theorists, the application of “public meaning originalism” by the US Supreme Court is perfectly consistent with the dominant legal theoretical approach in the English-speaking world. The extremity of the Court’s recent ‘textualist’ jurisprudence provides an excellent illustration, or reminder, of the dangers of legal positivist jurisprudence. In arguing against textualist originalism, this article defends a version of the anti-positivist distinction between legal rules and legal principles, most famously associated with the work of Ronald Dworkin. It argues, however, that this distinction cannot be captured by understanding constitutional principles in terms of moral principles, as Dworkin suggests. Instead, constitutional principles must be understood as deliberative principles of political association and communal self-determination. The primary subject of this article, then, is the character of fundamental constitutional law; our hope is that the current crises in democratic constitutional legitimacy can help make salient certain aspects of the relation between popular sovereignty and constitutional legitimacy that are harder to discern in less fractured political climates.
This article begins, in Part One, with a consideration of the Roberts Court’s recent jurisprudence, focusing on three landmark opinions issued in June of 2022: Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Kennedy v. Bremerton School Dist. and West Virginia v EPA. The point of revisiting this recent history will not be—or will not only be—to decry these rulings as anti-democratic and constitutionally ill-founded. The point, rather, will be 1) to see these rulings as consolidations of the Court’s newly asserted constitutional authority, and 2) show how contemporary positivist constitutional theory has helped prepare the way for the Court’s manipulation of the constitutional order.
Part Two begins to elaborate an anti-positivist alternative both to legal positivism and to natural law legal theory. In agreement with traditional natural law theorists, it is argued that the distinction between illegitimate and legitimate expressions of political authority depends on the degree to which a system of authority is directed toward a common good. In disagreement with those theorists, however, this article contends that the common good of a political community is determined by the communal deliberative activity of a political community, and that the deliberative determination of a common good is the normative foundation of that community.
Part Three focuses on the First Amendment of the US Constitution with two aims in mind. First, to illustrate the account of constitutional law here advocated, it offers a reading of the First Amendment as an attempt to put into words a shared understanding among the ratifiers of the Bill of Rights of what this article calls ‘the shape of citizenship’ in our constitutional democracy. Second, it shows how the Court’s recent opinions have radically subverted the last vestiges of this original connection between constitutional rights and the foundational principles of constitutional self-government. In Dobbs v Jackson, in particular, the Court asserts an understanding of constitutional rights as merely a particular structural variant of positive law, and in so doing effectively makes the legal order a sovereign power over the people, rather than an expression of and vehicle for their common self-determination.
Scholarly Commons Citation
McNeill, David N. and Tucker, Emily, "The Shape of Citizenship: Extraordinary Common Meaning and Constitutional Legitimacy" (2023). CPT Papers & Reports. 1.