Constitutional Law in an Age of Alternative Facts

May
2018
Allison Orr Larsen

Objective facts—while perhaps always elusive—are now an endangered species. A mix of digital speed, social media, fractured news, and party polarization has led to what some call a “post-truth” society: a culture where what is true matters less than what we want to be true. At the same moment in time when “alternative facts” reign supreme, we have also anchored our constitutional law in general observations about the way the world works. Do violent video games harm child brain development? Is voter fraud widespread? Is a “partial-birth abortion” ever medically necessary? Judicial pronouncements on questions like these are common, and— perhaps more importantly—they are being briefed by sophisticated litigants who know how to grow the factual dimensions of their case in order to achieve the constitutional change that they want.

The combination of these two forces—fact-heavy constitutional law in an environment where facts are easy to manipulate—is cause for serious concern. This Article explores what is new and worrisome about fact- finding today, and it identifies constitutional disputes loaded with convenient but false claims. To remedy the problem, we must empower courts to proactively guard against alternative facts. This means courts should push back on blanket calls for deference to the legislative record. Instead, I suggest re-focusing the standards of review in constitutional law to encourage fact-checking. It turns out some factual claims can be debunked with relative ease, and I encourage deference when lower courts rise above the fray and do just that.

 

 

This article appears in the May 2018 Issue: Volume 93, Number 2