Georgetown Center for the Constitution adjunct professor and Director Randy Barnett, along with adjunct professor Lawrence Solum, will host a weeklong seminar, “Originalism Boot Camp,” at the Georgetown Law Center from May 23 to 27.
Students will meet with and hear lectures from several prominent originalist scholars, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Attorney General Ed Meese. Barnett defined the term originalism as a way of interpreting the Constitution in its original intent from the time in which it was written.
The program is open to current law students nationwide who have completed at least their first year of law school, with applications closing March 16. Up to 20 applicants will be chosen to participate.
The original program of speakers included Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away Feb. 13 at the age of 79. As a major proponent of the theory of originalism, it was his work that first attracted many students to this philosophy of constitutional law.
Program manager Alexa Gervais, who helped to reorganize the program after the news of Scalia’s death, highlighted the loss the program faces in light of the late justice’s passing.
“The really great thing about having Justice Scalia speak late in the program was that it gave our students time to learn about originalism, so they would be able to formulate questions to ask,” Gervais said. “Of course, it’s a real tragedy that we don’t have the opportunity to do that anymore.”
However, Gervais said she is hopeful the program will prove even more influential in the face of losing a major proponent of originalism.
“I think Justice Scalia’s passing makes the program that much more important. It gives some seriousness to it, and shows why it’s so important that we educate our nation’s next judges on originalism,” Gervais said. “This great advocate for originalism is no longer able to fight for it on the court. It is our job to step up and promote originalism to work towards our goal of staying faithful to the text of the constitution. In that way, we can honor his legacy.”
Barnett founded the Center for the Constitution and is organizing the inaugural seminar program this year. He contrasted the originalism method of interpretation with attempts to adjust the Constitution’s meaning to current times.
“We’ve had a long-standing debate in this country between those who favor what’s called the living Constitution, which means a Constitution that the courts can change the meaning of, to update the Constitution with the times, against those who believe that the meaning of the Constitution should remain the same until it is properly changed,” Barnett said. “The outcomes of big cases can sometimes turn on which approach is adopted.”
Barnett said the motivation behind the boot camp centered on a desire to prepare students for future careers in originalism, while separating itself from a similarly-focused seminar that the Center for the Constitution co-sponsored with the Fund for American Studies, a non-profit that funds academic programs, for the past two years.
“This year we decided we would go our own way and recruit students ourselves – particularly students who want to focus on originalism,” Barnett said. “This is the first year our separate stand-alone seminar is running. It was conceived to assist students who are on a career track in which this idea would make a difference, whether that is as a clerk for a judge, a judge, a professor, or a litigator or a politician. We are exposing students to the best understandings of how originalism works in theory and in practice.”
Solum, who helped to design the new program, highlighted the importance of a seminar that informs students on a topic they might not otherwise learn about.
“Years ago, I had this idea that there was a need for some kind of one-week program on originalism because there was a gap in law students’ education and in the education of judicial clerks, lawyers and judges,” Solum said.
Aside from attending daily lectures from Barnett and Solum, reading articles and cases and listening to a variety of guest speakers, students will attend field trips, like to the Supreme Court to meet with Justice Thomas. Solum emphasized the various aspects of originalism to which the program seeks to expose students.
Solum stressed the importance of originalism, since many law schools do not place nearly as much importance on it as the living Constitution interpretation.
“Originalism is now the most discussed and debated theory about constitutional interpretation, and over the course of the last 30 years, it has become increasingly important as a methodology for the Supreme Court and for other courts,” Solum said. “It plays a tremendous role in judicial practice, but at most American law schools, it isn’t studied in any depth as compared to its rival, the living Constitution.”
Gervais expressed confidence that through this program, students will gain knowledge of originalism they may not have otherwise.
“Students are going to learn originalism in a way that they will never be able to at any other law school or university,” Gervais said. “We are offering so many different perspectives and such a variety of political ideology in one week that I think students are really going to walk away with this intensive understanding that is impossible to get in any other form or place.”
Yale Law School student Michael Clemente, who applied for the program, emphasized the widespread impact originalism can have, particularly on the protection of people with intellectual disabilities.
“There’s so much to learn about originalism – you can learn in terms of the actual practice itself or about the broader effects of it as a whole,” Clemente said. “My argument is that we are actually executing some people today with intellectual disabilities who would not have been executed in 1791 when the eighth amendment was adopted.”