Constitutional Topic: Constitutional Interpretation
The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns the various interpretations of the Constitution that have evolved over time.
The Constitution is many things to many people. Undoubtedly, it is the frame work for the Government of the United States of America, defining the three branches and clearing delineating the powers of the branches. It also undoubtedly grants certain power to the federal government and grants others to the states; and it undoubtedly guarantees the basic rights of the people.
The Constitution is short; it cannot and does not attempt to cover every eventuality. Even when it seems it is clear, there can be conflicting rights, conflicting spheres of power. When disputes arise, it comes time for people, and most importantly judges of the Judicial Branch, to interpret the Constitution. The concept of constitutional interpretation is foreign in some countries, where the constitution makes a reasonable effort to cover every eventuality. These constitutions are generally rigid and little changing, adapting slowly to advances in political views, popular opinion, technology, and changes in government. The U.S. Constitution, however, has been termed a Living Constitution, in part because it grows and adapts to internal and external pressures, changing from one era and generation to the next.
When a new situation arises, or even a new variation on an old situation, the Constitution is often looked to for guidance. It is at this point that the various interpretations of the Constitution come into play.
There is no one right way to interpret the Constitution, and people often do not always stick to one interpretation. Below, then, are the major divisions in interpretation; your own personal beliefs may fall into several of these categories.
Note: the major sources for material for this section were "Constitutional Law: Cases and Commentary" by Daniel Hall, and "On Reading the Constitution" by Lawrence Tribe and Michael Dorf.
Originalism, or, Original Intent
Originalists think that the best way to interpret the Constitution is to determine how the Framers intended the Constitution to be interpreted. They look to several sources to determine this intent, including the contemporary writings of the framers, newspaper articles, the Federalist Papers, and the notes from the Constitutional Convention itself.
Originalists consider the original intent to be the most pure way of interpreting the Constitution; the opinions of the Framers were, for the most part, well documented. If there is an unclear turn of phrase in the Constitution, who better to explain it than those who wrote it?
Opponents of originalism note several points. First, the Constitution may have been the product of the Framers, but it was ratified by hundreds of delegates in 13 state conventions - should not the opinions of these people hold even more weight? Also, the Framers were a diverse group, and many had issues with specific parts of the Constitution. Whose opinion should be used? Next, do the opinions of a small, homogeneous group from 200 years ago have the respect of the huge, diverse population of today? To a black woman, how much trust can be placed in the thoughts of a white slave owner who's been dead for generations?
In truth, as with all of the following interpretations, most people use originalism when it suits them. Finding a quote from a framer to support a modern position can be a powerful way to advance your point of view.
Those who most oppose the Originalist approach often consider themselves to be modernists, or instrumentalists. A modernist approach to Constitutional interpretation looks at the Constitution as if it were ratified today. What meaning would it have today, if written today. How does modern life affect the words of the Constitution? The main argument against originalism is that the Constitution becomes stale and irrelevant to modern life if only viewed through 18th century eyes. Additionally, we have more than 200 years of history and legal precedent to look back on, and that we are modern individuals, with as much difficulty in reasonably thinking like 18th century men as those 18th century men would have had trouble thinking like us.
Modernists also contend that the Constitution is deliberately vague in many areas, expressly to permit modern interpretations to override older ones as the Constitution ages. It is this interpretation that best embodies the Living Constitution concept: the Constitution is flexible and dynamic, changing slowly over time as the morals and beliefs of the population shift. Modernists do not reject originalism - they recognize that there is value in a historical perspective; but the contemporary needs of society outweigh an adherence to a potentially dangerously outdated angle of attack.
Originalists feel that modernism does a disservice to the Constitution, that the people who wrote it had a pure and valid vision for the nation, and that their vision should be able to sustain us through any Constitutional question.
Literalism - historical
Historical literalists believe that the contemporary writings of the Framers are not relevant to any interpretation of the Constitution. The only thing one needs to interpret the Constitution is a literal reading of the words contained therein, with an expert knowledge in the 18th century meaning of those words. The debates leading to the final draft are not relevant, the Federalist Papers are not relevant - only the words.
The historical literalist takes a similar look at the Constitution as an originalist does, but the literalist has no interest in expanding beyond the text for answers to questions. For example, an historical literalist will see the militia of the 2nd Amendment as referring to all able-bodied men from 17 to 45, just as in the late 18th century, and this interpretation will color that person's reading of the 2nd Amendment.
Literalism - contemporary
Very similar to an historical literalist, a contemporary literalist looks only to the words of the Constitution for guidance, but this literalist has no interest in the historical meaning of the words. The contemporary literalist looks to modern dictionaries to determine the meaning of the words of the Constitution, ignoring precedent and legal dissertation, and relying solely on the definition of the words.
Just as the historical literalist view parallels the originalist view, but much more narrow in focus, so too does the contemporary literalist mirror the modernist; and again, the main difference is the literalist looks only to the words of the Constitution for meaning. To expand on the 2nd Amendment example, the contemporary literalist will view the militia as the modern National Guard, and this will color that person's views on the 2nd.
Finally, the democratic interpretation is the last approach to interpretation. Democratic interpretation is also known as normative or representation reinforcement. Democratic proponents advocate that the Constitution is not designed to be a set of specific principles and guidelines, but that it was designed to be a general principle, a basic skeleton on which contemporary vision would build upon. Decisions as to the meaning of the Constitution must look at the general feeling evoked by the Constitution, then use modern realism to pad out the skeleton.
As evidence, democrats point out that many phrases, such as "due process" and "equal protection" are deliberately vague, that the phrases are not defined in context. The guidance for interpretation must come from that basic framework that the Framers provided, but that to fill in the gaps, modern society's current morals and feelings must be taken into consideration. Changes in the Constitution that stem from this kind of philosophy will end up with principles of the population at large, while ensuring that the framers still have a say in the underlying decision or ruling. This interpretation is seen to enhance democratic ideals and the notion of republicanism.