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Original Meaning and the Precedent Fallback

Posted by on Monday, January 26, 2015 in Articles, Volume 68, Volume 68, Number 1.

Original Meaning and the Precedent Fallback


There is longstanding tension between originalism and judicial precedent. With its resolute focus on deciphering the enacted Constitution, the originalist methodology raises questions about whether judges can legitimately defer to their own pronouncements. Numerous scholars have responded by debating whether and when the Constitution’s original meaning should yield to contrary precedent.

This Article considers the role of judicial precedent not when it conflicts with the Constitution’s original meaning but rather when the consultation of text and historical evidence is insufficient to resolve a case. In those situations, deference to precedent can serve as a fallback rule of constitutional adjudication. The strengths and weaknesses of the originalist methodology take on a unique valence when a primary commitment to original meaning is coupled with a fallback rule of deference to precedent. Even when the Constitution’s original meaning leaves multiple options available, falling back on precedent can channel judicial discretion and contribute to a stable, impersonal framework of constitutional law.


Associate Professor of Law, Notre Dame Law School.