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A Political Interpretation of Vagueness Doctrine

The “void-for-vagueness” doctrine requires the specific definition of criminal offenses. In this Article, though, we claim it does more: it largely restricts criminalization decisions to legislatures, which are unlikely to criminalize conduct they see as both harmless and widespread. Thus, rather than constitutionalizing the harm principle and thereby assuming a judicial obligation to define harm, the Supreme Court has used the vagueness doctrine to constrain majorities to make their own assessments of harmfulness. While American law has no explicit requirements that criminal liability be created by legislation or conditioned on harm, the vagueness doctrine achieves those ends indirectly.

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