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Constitutional Law

Faculty Articles

St. Mary's University School of Law

2023

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Originalism And The Meaning Of "Twenty Dollars", Michael L. Smith Jan 2023

Originalism And The Meaning Of "Twenty Dollars", Michael L. Smith

Faculty Articles

Originalism claims to provide answers, or at least assistance, for those hoping to interpret a Constitution filled with wide-ranging, morally loaded terminology. Originalists claim that looking to the original public meaning of the Constitution will constrain interpreters, maintain consistency and predictability in judicial decisions, and is faithful to ideals like democratic legitimacy. This essay responds with the inevitable, tough question: whether originalism can tell interpreters what the Seventh Amendment's reference to "twenty dollars" means--both as a matter of original meaning and for interpreters today.

While this appears to be an easy question, I demonstrate that rather than telling modern legal …