December 2007 Vol. 106 No. 3 THE REVIEW

Taking Text too Seriously: Modern Textualism, Original Meaning, and the Case of Amar's Bill of Rights

William Michael Treanor

Championed on the Supreme Court by Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas and in academia most prominently by Professor Akhil Amar, textualism has emerged within the past twenty years as a leading school of constitutional interpretation. Textualists argue that the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with its original public meaning, and in seeking that meaning, they closely parse the Constitution’s words and grammar and the placement of clauses in the document. They have assumed that this close parsing recaptures original meaning, but, perhaps because it seems obviously correct, that assumption has neither been defended nor challenged. This Article uses Professor Amar’s widely acclaimed masterpiece of the textualist movement, The Bill of Rights, as a case study to test the validity of that assumption.

Amar’s work has profoundly influenced subsequent scholarship and case law with its argument that the creation of the Bill of Rights primarily reflected republican rights of “the people” rather than individual rights. This Article shows that Amar’s republican reading is incorrect and that his textualist interpretive approach repeatedly leads him astray. Amar incorrectly assumes that words have the same meaning throughout the document, assigns a significance to the placement of clauses that is belied by the drafting history, and incorrectly posits that the Bill of Rights reflects a unitary ideological vision. The textualist search for original public meaning cannot be squared with an interpretive approach that assumes that all word choices were made with a high degree of care, that the significance of location can be assessed simply by examining the four corners of the document, and that the Constitution must be understood holistically. Analysis of Professor Amar’s Bill of Rights indicates that, paradoxically, close reading is a poor guide to original meaning: rather, careful study of the drafting history is necessary to recapture any such understanding.

   //  VIEW PDF
& Other Current Events

Speedy Trial as a Viable Challenge to Chronic Underfunding in Indigent-Defense Systems

Across the country, underresourced indigent-defense systems create delays in taking cases to trial...

A Blended Approach to Reducing the Costs of Shareholder Litigation

Multiforum litigation and federal securities law class actions impose heavy costs on corporations and...

The Scope of Precedent

The scope of Supreme Court precedent is capacious. Justices of the Court commonly defer to sweeping rationales...

Reinventing Copyright and Patent

Intellectual property systems all over the world are modeled on a one-size-fits-all principle. However...

Protecting Whistleblower Protections in the Dodd-Frank Act

In 2008, the United States fell into its worst economic recession in over seventy years. In response,...
MAILING LIST
Sign Up to Join Our Mailing List