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Working Paper

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An historical approach to constitutional interpretation draws upon original intentions or understandings of the meaning or application of a constitutional provision. Comparing the ways in which courts in different jurisdictions use history is a complex exercise. In recent years, academic and judicial discussion of “originalism” has obscured both the global prevalence of resorting to historical materials as an interpretive resource and the impressive diversity of approaches courts may take to deploying those materials. This chapter seeks, in Section B, to develop a basic taxonomy of historical approaches. Section C explores in greater depth the practices of eight jurisdictions with constitutional courts or apex courts that engage in constitutional review: those of the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Because our selection of cases aims to be illustrative rather than exhaustive, we do not attempt to draw firm conclusions about the global use of constitutional history. Still, the qualitative evidence that follows hints at what might well be universal within constitutional judging: (1) the significance of history broadly understood, and (2) the limits on history’s reach into contemporary rights conflicts.


Comparative and Foreign Law | Constitutional Law | Courts | Law