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Our Principled Constitution

Suppose that we disagree about a matter of constitutional law. Say that one of us contends, and the other denies, that transgender persons have constitutional rights to be treated in accord with their gender identity. It appears that we disagree about “what the law is.” And, most probably, we disagree about what the law is on this matter because we disagree about what generally makes it the case that our constitutional law is this rather than that.

Constitutional theory should provide guidance. Theorists should try to explain what gives our constitutional rules the contents that they have, or what makes true constitutional propositions true; they should aim to provide what I will call a “constitutive theory” of constitutional law. It is obvious that we do not all share a constitutive theory. It is less obvious, and strikingly underappreciated, that we have precious few candidates to choose from. Few of our many prescriptive theories regarding how judges should exercise the power of judicial review have straightforward constitutive implications.

This Article presents an original constitutive theory of American constitutional law (and of law generally), founded on the familiar distinction between two types of constitutional norms: “principles” and “rules.” It argues: first, that rules are determined by the interaction of principles, in a manner that can be loosely modeled as force addition; and second, that the principles are “grounded” in mental states, speech‐acts, and behaviors of persons who make up the constitutional community, much as rules of fashion or of billiards are grounded in behaviors of persons who make up their normative communities. In short: social facts determine constitutional principles, and constitutional principles determine constitutional rules. I call the account “principled positivism.” It is positivist, pluralist, and dynamic.

Principled positivism maintains that we can come to know our constitutional rules by discerning the contents, contours, and weights of our constitutional principles. Accordingly, the Article offers a preliminary and partial inventory of our constitutional principles—principles concerning the legal significance of what the enacted text says and what its authors intended; principles about the force of judicial precedents and of extra‐judicial practices; principles of popular sovereignty, the distribution of governing power, and the demands of liberty and equality. It then puts the principles to work, illustrating how they operate in diverse constitutional controversies, from same‐sex marriage to the scope of Congress’s commerce power.