Theses Doctoral

Conservative Jurisprudence and Liberal Constitutionalism

Perkins, Jordan Lee

For the last half-century, American politics has been ravaged by a war for control of the courts. While conflict between the courts of law and the elected branches of government has been a recurrent theme in American history, this conflict has taken on a heightened importance beginning with the rights revolution ushered in by the Warren Court. Judicial originalism was born as part of a backlash against Warren and Burger Court expansions of constitutional rights in areas as disparate as First Amendment protections for individual speech and the expansion of substantive due process to cover contraception and abortion.

By the end of the Trump Administration, the judicial backlash against this expansion of constitutionalized rights appears to have gained the upper hand as the Supreme Court and lower courts of appeals, especially the Fifth Circuit, have begun a substantial counteroffensive. Roe v. Wade has been overturned, a longstanding goal of legal conservatives, and the groundwork has been set for a rollback of the federal administrative state, which has often seen by legal conservatives as a political foe.

This dissertation discusses the theoretical underpinnings of contemporary conservative jurisprudence, with a particular focus on the formalistic interpretive methodologies of originalism and textualism. It argues that textualism, at least as advanced by Justices Scalia and Gorsuch, is philosophically confused, and it argues that originalism is insufficient to its purported task of weakening the judiciary through a limitation of judicial discretion. Because legal conservatives often defend their views as a natural outgrowth of a commonsense picture of political morality, grounded in the concepts of the rule of law, democracy, and the separation of powers, I also discuss the interplay between those concepts within legal conservative discourse.

Contemporary legal conservative conceptions of these ideological constructs are compared to historical predecessors in the works of John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Hans Kelsen, and others. I argue that the legal conservative versions of these constructs are defective and seriously imperiled by the threat of legal indeterminacy. I conclude that they should be reconfigured to meet this challenge.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Johnston, David Chambliss
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 26, 2023