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This essay is a chapter in a volume that examines constitutional law in the United States through the lens of H.L.A. Hart’s “rule of recognition” model of a legal system. My chapter focuses on a feature of constitutional practice that has been rarely examined: how jurists and scholars argue about interpretive methods. Although a vast body of scholarship provides arguments for or against various interpretive methods --such as textualism, originalism, “living constitutionalism,” structure-and-relationship reasoning, representation-reinforcement, minimalism, and so forth -- very little scholarship shifts to the meta-level and asks: What are the considerations that jurists and scholars bring to bear in arguing one or another interpretive method is legally favored? And can we “make sense” of this body of argument? Is there a model of legal discourse that both accurately describes how U.S. jurists and scholars actually argue about interpretive methods, and that vindicates this discourse (in the sense of seeing these actors as making valid arguments)? I find that Hart’s rule-of-recognition model fails to describe or vindicate how U.S. jurists and scholars argue about interpretive methods. The problem, in a nutshell, is that Hart sees legal argument as asserting or presupposing the social fact of contemporary official acceptance of a rule of recognition. By contrast, jurists and scholars typically point to social facts other than contemporary official acceptance in arguing for the legal status of an interpretive method - for example, the fact that the method is supported by Framers’ intent, or by U.S. culture and tradition, or by precedent. Further, jurists and scholars very often argue that some interpretive method is legally favored even though the method is controversial. On Hart’s model, such a claim is problematic --- because, on his model, the content of the rule of recognition is not controversial, but rather a matter of consensus among officials. The upshot may just be that Hart’s model is a failure. However, another possibility is to adopt an “error theory” of U.S. constitutional discourse. It may perhaps be the case that U.S. jurists and scholars often make claims for the favorable legal status of some interpretive method that are inconsistent with the best understanding of the nature of law.


Constitutional law, jurisprudence, H.L.A. Hart, interpretive methods, legal culture, error theory

Publication Title

The Rule of Recognition and the U.S. Constitution

Publication Citation

In Matthew D. Adler and Kenneth Einar Himma (eds.), The Rule of Recognition and the U.S. Constitution 193 (2009).