Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date

2020

Center/Program

Center for Constitutional Governance

Abstract

Constitutional argument runs on the rails of “modalities.” These are the accepted categories of reasoning used to make claims about the content of supreme law. Some of the modalities, such as ethical and prudential arguments, seem strikingly open ended at first sight. Their contours come into clearer view, however, when we attend to the kinds of claims that are not made by constitutional interpreters – the analytical and rhetorical moves that are familiar in debates over public policy and political morality but are considered out of bounds in debates over constitutional meaning. In this Article, we seek to identify the “anti-modalities” of constitutional law and to investigate their implications.

The anti-modalities both stabilize and undermine the modalities. On the one hand, they work in tandem to ensure that constitutional interpretation remains a distinctive legal enterprise. The two argument bundles are in this sense mutually reinforcing, even co-constitutive. On the other hand, by ruling out various important categories of reasoning – from general moral theory to emotional judgment to many cost-benefit calculations – the anti-modalities put continuous pressure on the modalities to accommodate such reasoning in adulterated forms, or else insist on a long distance between the inputs into supreme law and the concerns that most people care about. We call this distance constitutional law’s “resonance gap.” Such a gap arises in all areas of law, but it is especially pronounced in the constitutional realm.

Although the anti-modalities play a critical role in preserving the law/politics distinction, they have deleterious consequences for each side of that line. The best response, this Article suggests, is not necessarily to narrow the resonance gap but rather to narrow the domain of constitutional law. If constitutional argument must exclude (or purport to exclude) vital modes of reasoning, we might worry less about refining its grammar and more about restricting its reach.

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