Columbia Public Law & Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



For all its proponents’ claims of its necessity as a means of constraining judges, originalism is remarkably unpopular outside the United States. Recommended responses to judicial activism in other countries more typically take the form of minimalism or textualism. This Article considers why. I focus particular attention on the political and constitutional histories of Canada and Australia, nations that, like the United States, have well-established traditions of judicial enforcement of a written constitution, and that share with the United States a common-law background adjudicative norm, but whose judicial cultures less readily assimilate judicial restraint to historicist claims. I offer six hypotheses as to the influences that sensitize our popular and judicial culture to such claims: the canonizing influence of time; the revolutionary character of American sovereignty; the rights revolution of the Warren and Burger Courts; the politicization of the judicial nomination process in the United States; the accommodation of an assimilative, as against a pluralist, ethos; and a relatively evangelical religious culture. These six hypotheses suggest, among other things, that originalist argument in the United States is a form of ethical argument, and that the domestic debate over originalism should be understood in ethical terms.

Date of Authorship for this Version

March 2009