New Scholarship on Originalism and Discrimination

For a long time, the conventional wisdom among legal scholars has been that an originalist interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment would require courts to uphold laws that discriminate against women and laws banning interracial marriage. While these arguments were once advanced by defenders of sexism and Jim Crow laws, today they are usually used as justification for rejecting originalism itself rather than for rejecting court decisions such as Loving v. Virginia, which struck down anti-miscegenation laws. At the same time, most scholars have also argued that the original meaning of the Amendment permits states to adopt affirmative action programs.

Recent scholarship has called this conventional wisdom into serious question. In 2011, Northwestern law professor Steven Calabresi and Julia Rickert published an important article outlining an originalist case for striking down laws that discriminate on the basis of sex. More recently, both Calabresi (with Andrea Matthews) and David Upham have published originalist defenses of the result in Loving.

Just a few days ago, Michael Rappaport posted this paper questioning the conventional wisdom on originalism and affirmative action (which I myself questioned much less thoroughly here). It is not my view that the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment clearly requires courts to strike down all affirmative action programs. But the application of the original meaning to these programs is far from being as clear as the conventional wisdom suggests.

I don’t think the work of Calabresi and his coauthors, Rappaport, and Upham will definitively end the debate over originalism and discrimination. Critics of originalism will likely develop rebuttals to their arguments. But this new wave of scholarship does mount a strong challenge to the previously dominant conventional wisdom.