Missing Pieces: Gaps in the Record of Early American Decisional Law

  • Mar 2024
  • 23 Pages


In its most recent major Second Amendment decision, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the Supreme Court suggested that historical laws “rarely subject to judicial scrutiny” are not especially illuminating because “we do not know the basis of their perceived legality.” Legal scholars have defended Bruen’s approach to historical evidence in part by arguing that the decision requires merely an artificially-limited historical inquiry into internal legal sources to discern overarching principles accepted across the country in the Founding Era. But modern-day lawyers and judges actually know far less than they might believe about whether certain laws were subject to judicial scrutiny during crucial eras of American history because many court decisions—especially from the Founding Era—were simply never recorded for posterity. Those omissions were not random, and they do not represent merely what we today would consider insignificant holdings. Rather, omissions from the surviving record of decisional law are the product of curation by early court reporters, newspaper editors, and other actors often motivated by profit or partisan bias. Therefore, it is often perilous to extrapolate “the general law” from the extant, unrepresentative caselaw that happens to be preserved today.

This Essay examines how the non-legal choices and preferences of those who recorded early American case law prior to the gradual emergence of more consistent reporting of judicial decisions in the late nineteenth century shaped the historical record of early decisional law that exists today. Part I chronicles the largely inconsistent and at times chaotic practice of court reporting at and after the Founding and explores how judicial decisions were preserved and published during that time. Part II addresses how modern originalist theories should approach and appreciate the “curated” nature of legal history from that time. I argue that the record of early American decisional law has been profoundly influenced by various actors (legal and non-legal) according to considerations other than preserving an accurate, comprehensive snapshot of “general law” at the time—namely, based on motives including profit and partisanship. This reality, I suggest, means that it is crucial to expand the universe of historical sources when possible to capture what may be missing from the universe of preserved decisional law.

Suggested Citation

Andrew Willinger, Missing Pieces: Gaps in the Record of Early American Decisional Law, 73 Duke Law Journal Online 209 (2024)

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