Understanding Constitutional Interpretation


If you have ever held a political opinion, you have perhaps unknowingly interpreted the Constitution. You’re certainly not alone in doing so, but maybe you aren’t completely aware of how important interpretation of our Constitution is. Interpretation has influenced much of our politics throughout history, both in ideology (conservative v. liberal) and in law. Our laws, all of our laws, abide by the Constitution. They are measured against it to ensure our county not sway from the founding principles. But what those principles are exactly is where we disagree. For example, if the Constitution says the role of government is to promote the “general welfare” of its people, does that include providing healthcare for them? Some would say yes and some would say no. Just by stating an opinion on such an issue means you are interpreting the Constitution.

There are countless interpretations of the Constitution and no way to sift through the legitimacy of them all, but I would like to write about a few that I learned from reading my American Constitutional Interpretation book. It’s a book I bought after taking a Constitutional law course, where we also focused on these influential interpretations.

Though these interpretations are separate from each other, I believe to an extent each theory is dependent upon the validation of its’ counter-theory. Each interpretation views the Constitution and its’ interpreters in a different light. Each is, by my analysis, too radical a theory to be the sole interpretation that this country adheres to. Even Justice Scalia, believer of the first interpretation I will look at, “Originalism”, concedes the faults within his own logic. Justice Brennan’s idea of an expansive and powerful but limited government will contrast the originalist approach; Justice Rehnquist looks to the majority as the deciding body of what the Constitution says and scholar Ronald Dworkin introduces a counter-majoritarian dilemma to Rehnquist’s philosophy.

To begin, we must first decide what is a Constitution before we can successfully answer whose role it is to interpret that document. A Constitution, and to be specific the Constitution of the United States, by most accounts, is a blueprint for government and nation. It contains, in some ways, the rights of the government and, other ways, the rights of the citizen. It outlines the powers of each branch; the Legislature yields the power of the Purse, the Executive yields the power of the Military, and the Judiciary yields the power of its’ Reason. But it also limits the government in other areas, namely within the Bill of Rights. What government cannot impede on or take away from its’ citizens is outlined in the Amendments to the Constitution. In the Preamble, or the first sentences, the Constitution takes on the aspirational goals of our government, ensuring the general welfare and safety of its people while also maintaining their freedom.

The Constitution has proven itself to be equivocal. Many interpretations of the document have lead this country at various points in our history, and denying the Constitution the due credit of its equivocacy also denies it and its Framers the transcendence that has allowed the documents to last over two hundred years. If we were to say that the Constitution was unequivocal, it would not have stood the test of time. It lays the framework for our democratic republic; in such a form of government, disagreement and interpretation are necessary components. If we were to deny equivocacy to the very document that outlines equivocal practice, our nation, not just our government, would be unable to expand and adapt to the natural progression of change that prevails human history. Each of the interpretations outlined below assume that our Constitution is equivocal. What is important to remember when reading all of this is that none of these are concrete. Think of these interpretations (and a thousand others) as a four-quadrant graph; in one corner, you’ve got Justice Scalia and his bare-bones principles. In the opposing corner stands Justice Brennan, telling of powerful contemporary rule. And in the other two corners are Rehnquist and Dworkin, who contrast the others investment in the power of the American majority. Where you fall on this XYZ axis is entirely up to you. So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s go through these four interpretations.


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