Constitutional Interpretation: Final Thoughts


Speaking to the interpretations of Brennan and Scalia, I believe both interpretations are correct and incorrect. Both theories support themselves. Originalism is correct in its’ paranoia; there is a very apparent anxiety of judges reading their own values into the Constitution that other interpretive theories perhaps do not address. Originalism is required of Brennan’s contemporary ratification; we must look to the text and the “intervening history” (239) as proper guides. Without them, we would be left to defy the aspirations and goals the Constitution reminds us to adhere to. But without contemporary ratification, society wouldn’t be able to grow. Change would instead be held back by the Constitution, rather than liberated. A new Constitution would have to be ratified far more often.

Rehnquist is correct in asserting that the majority does hold a major influence in society; but I do not necessarily agree that such an influence resides in the Constitution. Society is not formed through Constitutional ratification; rather, I maintain the Constitution is a consequence of society. Society and the Constitution do not always reflect themselves in values, understanding, moral judgment, etc. Society is at times more progressive or more conservative than the Constitution. But society changes opinions and values quite frequently. Wherein fifty years ago, concepts of equality bore a far different meaning than they did in 2005, and even from 2005 till now. Constitutional interpretation, I believe needs to remain broad and vague enough to account for the bipolar society it originated from. But that very argument I have just made seemingly for a system of majoritarian rule negates such a system. Society is bipolar, changing opinion based on assertion of various factors. The rule of the majority must remain balanced with the wishes and values of the opposing minority. If we were to allow the majority to rule, only the popular opinions would prevail. Our country would be in a very different place, socially and in our philosophic interpretations. Segregation could still be very alive and well in America if the majority ruled; in fact, even at the time of the founding more Americans sided with Great Britain than becoming an independent nation.

Constitutional Interpretation: Originalism and Contemporary Ratification


Before his death, the late Justice Antonin Scalia was the considered the most conservative Justice on the Court. His method of interpreting the Constitution, called Originalism, is proof of that claim. Scalia prefaces his argument with the assertion that, “…originalism is not, and had perhaps never been, the sole method of constitutional exegesis.” (231) Originalism, at its most basic comprehension, is the belief that in order to interpret the Constitution, one must apply the Framer’s intent. We are bound to the original intentions of the Founding Father who sculpted our Constitution and we are bound to interpret it as they would. Original intent, he claims, is the most beneficial interpretation; it requires putting yourself in the time, context, and minds of the Framers. This requires an “enormous mass of material” (233); ratifying debates, notes, books, an evaluation of reliable materials used as consult at the time, a political and intellectual atmosphere, even down to assuming the beliefs, philosophies, and principles that guided each individual Framer. Sounds hard, right? It is, and necessarily so. Original intent is not a defect of originalism; it is the feature. Scalia insisted that this is the proper interpretation because it does not require the need for constitutional guarantees to ensure that its laws will reflect the current values of the time. (234) In other words, we don’t need to check the Constitution every time we make a new law because we are already abiding by it in the most literal approach.

Yet even Scalia admits originalism is not the end of the debate. The chief concerns of originalism are justified; that it’s a strong medicine to take that requires great and careful consideration and a trained mind to successfully interpret, leading to many false interpretations of the theory. But the chief defect, he points out, is that it may be more appropriate for the given task it is applied to. Rather than being a defect with the theory, the defect lies within applying whatever task stands before the Constitution. So, if there was a law that does not adhere to Originalism, it isn’t the fault of Originalism but rather the fault of those trying to apply Originalism to that law. If that law cannot pass the original intent test, it is unconstitutional. Among Scalia’s concessions, he fails to acknowledge the inconceivable evolution of society. Scalia argued, “I cannot imagine myself, any more than any other federal judge, upholding a statute that imposes the punishment of flogging. But then I cannot imagine such a case’s arising either.” That itself is a concession in the fault of originalism; the inconceivable is not accounted for in such a theory. One can argue that, for example, a right to privacy is outlined in several Amendments of the Bill of Rights and that we should interpret our right to privacy as a guarantee. However, I argue that the Framers may very well have believed in a right to privacy…but I don’t believe the Framers could fathom a global broadband network that instantly connects most of the human race, preserving all your personal information and the entire history of our species. And that is only after explaining what a “photograph,” “display,” and “audio file” are. These would be unfathomable to men and women who lived nearly 250 years ago and that is the problem. Because it is the unfathomable that tests the strength and resilience of our Constitution against time. And Originalism does not account for the unfathomable, even when it tries to.

Justice Brennan offers an entirely different theory. He believes that the Framers are not what bind us to the Constitution because the Framers could not conceive of the issues testing our nation a hundred years or more ahead of them. The Founders purposely included these broad, vague, noble principles for future generations to interpret; according to Brennan, the Constitution is an aspirational text full of values we should be striving toward. Values such as social justice and human dignity run throughout the Constitution and should not be overshadowed. Rather, we are bound to the traditions and aspirations that preceded us since the Founding. Brennan argues that it is impossible to put yourself fully in the shoes of the Framers because doing so would require one to abandon the principles and moral judgment one has lived with their entire life. Doing so is not an easy task, as Scalia pointed out. But I do find myself agreeing with Brennan slightly more. I don’t believe there is a way to properly let go of all your judgment and moral compassing to become fully immersed in the shoes of another…not to mention, another from over 200 years ago. Because exactly what you are doing is imagining. Imagination rightfully anchors us to our own aspirations and ideals, and as such we do read into the text what we want to find.

But Brennan also believes that the Constitution is not blueprint limiting government; it is instead a public text of our aspirations for this country in the contemporary society. “…Because ours is a government of the people’s elected representatives, substantive value choices should by and large be left to them. This view emphasizes not the transcendent historical authority of the framers but the predominant contemporary authority of the elected branches of government.” (238) Effectively, Brennan is suggesting that the nature our democratic republic necessarily requires a reading of the Constitution that is contemporary. The nature of our democracy elects the persons who best represent the ideas and goals of the people. Take gay marriage as an example; it is, I believe, safe to assume that a candidate running for President in 2016 will not be elected by the majority if s/he does not support or believe in same-sex marriages.

Scalia argues that if our Constitution no longer at any time meets the exigencies of society’s evolving standards, and an Amendment is required, there is nothing stopping the people or elected representatives from doing so in a proper and democratic manner. Brennan pushes that of course we look to the text and the intervening history for interpretation; but when that is unavailable to us, we must ask what the Constitution means in our own time. The problem I have with Brennan’s theory is that it makes space for far more fault than benefit. Following this interpretation leads to contemporary implementation, but also allows for an expansive government that prioritizes current societal trends over the protected rights of the people and the states outlined in the Bill of Rights.

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.