Constitutional Interpretation, Originalism and a Living Constitution

Another reprint on the Constitution. This is leading up to something I promise.

In discussing Scott Lemieux's piece on Dred Scott (Lemieux responded here), I touched upon the issue of Constitutional Interpretation. On Constitutional interpretation I wrote:

It seems undeniable to me that Dred Scott was a results oriented decision. And in that respect, Lemieux's statement that “[a]spirational” jurisprudence is only as good as the aspirations of the judge involved” is obviously correct. However, that does the “theory of a living Constitution” short shrift. The theory (or at least my theory) of a Living Constitution does not rest on “aspirational jurisprudence”, but rather on common law judicial principles and the Constitution itself.

More on this on the other side.

I reject the idea that proponents of a Living Constitution are not originalists, in the sense that the idea of a Living Constitution is to promote original Constitutional purpose to current circumstances.

My view is that a Living Constitution seeks to understand the original purpose of the Constitution, and its specific provisions, and discern how best to serve that purpose in the case then presented. I believe that the proper function of Constitutional interpretation does not entail reading the Constitution as one reads a statute – it requires more than a formalized reading of the text and search for specific findings of the original understanding of the specific text in question and the applicability to the case at hand. It requires a unifying approach, one that seeks to read the Constitution as a whole, harmonizing the component parts of the Constitution, the empowering provisions, the limiting provisions, the individual rights created and preserved. It requires understanding the purpose of the creation of a third coequal branch, the judicial branch, with the attendant common law judicial powers and restraints.

The first great Chief Justice, John Marshall, did yeoman work in establishing this role and approach for the Supreme Court. I argue that Marshall's jurisprudence established that Constitutional interpretation requires both respect for the original purpose and application of Common Law principles to discern the proper application of original purpose to the specific case presented.

The phrase “Living Constitution” is often used to disparage this approach. But I think, properly understood, the phrase is very appropriate – the purpose of the Constitution lives and grows – and the original PURPOSES are essential to that growth – by understanding the WHY the Framers wrote what they wrote and serving the original PURPOSE by transposing that purpose upon the specific case.

Professor Jack Balkin, of Balkinization, issued a paper recently that had similar thoughts, much better expressed of course:

This article argues that the debate between originalism and living constitutionalism offers a false dichotomy. Many originalists and their critics improperly conflate fidelity to the original meaning of the constitutional text with fidelity to how people living at the time of adoption expected that it would be applied. That is, they confuse “original meaning” with “original expected application.”

Constitutional interpretation requires fidelity to the original meaning of the Constitution and to the principles that underlie the text, but not to original expected application. This general approach to constitutional interpretation is the method of “text and principle.” This approach is faithful to the original meaning of the constitutional text, and to its underlying purposes. It is also consistent with the idea of a basic law that leaves to each generation the task of how to make sense of the Constitution's words and principles in their own time. Although the constitutional text and principles do not change without subsequent amendment, their application and implementation can. That is the best way to understand the interpretive practices characteristic of our constitutional tradition and the work of the many political and social movements that have transformed our understandings of the Constitution's guarantees. It explains, as other versions of originalism cannot, why these transformations are not simply mistakes that we must grudgingly accept out of respect for settled precedent, but are significant achievements of our constitutional tradition.

The views of Professor Balkin and I are buttressed by those of this Constitutional scholar:

[A]s a frame or fundamental law of government, [t]he constitution of the United States is to receive a reasonable interpretation of its language, and its powers, keeping in view the objects and purposes, for which those powers were conferred. By a reasonable interpretation, we mean, that in case the words are susceptible of two different senses, the one strict, the other more enlarged, that should be adopted, which is most consonant with the apparent objects and intent of the constitution; that, which will give it efficacy and force, as a government, rather than that, which will impair its operations, and reduce it to a state of imbecility.

This consideration is of great importance in construing a frame of government; and a fortiori a frame of government, the free and voluntary institution of the people for their common benefit, security, and happiness.

. . . [A] constitution of government, founded by the people for themselves and their posterity, and for objects of the most momentous nature, for perpetual union, for the establishment of justice, for the general welfare, and for a perpetuation of the blessings of liberty, necessarily requires, that every interpretation of its powers should have a constant reference to these objects. No interpretation of the words, in which those powers are granted, can be a sound one, which narrows down their ordinary import, so as to defeat those objects. That would be to destroy the spirit, and to cramp the letter. It has been justly observed, that “the constitution unavoidably deals in general language. It did not suit the purposes of the people, in framing this great charter of our liberties, to provide for minute specification of its powers, or to declare the means, by which those powers should be carried into execution. It was foreseen, that it would be a perilous, and difficult, if not an impracticable task. The instrument was not intended to provide merely for the exigencies of a few years; but was to endure through a long lapse of ages, the events of which were locked up in the inscrutable purposes of Providence. It could not be foreseen, what new changes and modifications of power might be indispensable to effectuate the general objects of the charter; and restrictions and specifications, which at the present might seem salutary, might in the end prove the overthrow of the system itself. Hence its powers are expressed in general terms, leaving the legislature, from time to time, to adopt its own means to effectuate legitimate objects, and to mould and model the exercise of its powers, as its own wisdom and the public interests should require.”21 Language to the same effect will be found in other judgments of the same tribunal.22

If, then, we are to give a reasonable construction to this instrument, as a constitution of government established for the common good, we must throw aside all notions of subjecting it to a strict interpretation, as if it were subversive of the great interests of society, or derogated from the inherent sovereignty of the people. And this will naturally lead us to some other rules properly belonging to the subject.

Where the power is granted in general terms, the power is to be construed, as coextensive with the terms, unless some clear restriction upon it is deducible from the context. We do not mean to assert, that it is necessary, that such restriction should be expressly found in the context. It will be sufficient, if it arise by necessary implication. But it is not sufficient to show, that there was, or might have been, a sound or probable motive to restrict it. A restriction founded on conjecture is wholly inadmissible. The reason is obvious: the text was adopted by the people in its obvious, and general sense. We have no means of knowing, that any particular gloss, short of this sense, was either contemplated, or approved by the people; and such a gloss might, though satisfactory in one state, have been the very ground of objection in another. It might have formed a motive to reject it in one, and to adopt it in another. The sense of a part of the people has no title to be deemed the sense of the whole. Motives of state policy, or state interest, may properly have influence in the question of ratifying it; but the constitution itself must be expounded, as it stands; and not as that policy, or that interest may seem now to dictate. We are to construe, and not to frame the instrument.23

. . . It has been observed with great correctness, that although the spirit of an instrument, especially of a constitution, is to be respected not less than its letter; yet the spirit is to be collected chiefly from the letter. It would be dangerous in the extreme, to infer from extrinsic circumstances, that a case, for which the words of an instrument expressly provide, shall be exempted from its operation. Where words conflict with each other, where the different clauses of an instrument bear upon each other, and would be inconsistent, unless the natural and common import of words be varied, construction becomes necessary, and a departure from the obvious meaning of words is justifiable. But if, in any case, the plain meaning of a provision, not contradicted by any other provision in the same instrument, is to be disregarded, because we believe the framers of that instrument could not intend what they say, it must be one, where the absurdity and injustice of applying the provision to the case would be so monstrous, that all mankind would, without hesitation, unite in rejecting the application.26 This language has reference to a case where the words of a constitutional provision are sought to be restricted. But it appears with equal force where they are sought to be enlarged.

. . . No construction of a given power is to be allowed, which plainly defeats, or impairs its avowed objects. If, therefore, the words are fairly susceptible of two interpretations, according to their common sense and use, the one of which would defeat one, or all of the objects, for which it was obviously given, and the other of which would preserve and promote all, the former interpretation ought to be rejected, and the latter be held the true interpretation. This rule results from the dictates of mere common sense; for every instrument ought to be so construed, ut magis valeat, quam pereat.27 For instance, the constitution confers on congress the power to declare war. Now the word declare has several senses. It may mean to proclaim, or publish. But no person would imagine, that this was the whole sense, in which the word is used in this connexion. It should be interpreted in the sense, in which the phrase is used among nations, when applied to such a subject matter. A power to declare war is a power to make, and carry on war. It is not a mere power to make known an existing thing, but to give life and effect to the thing itself.28 The true doctrine has been expressed by the Supreme Court: “If from the imperfection of human language there should be any serious doubts respecting the extent of any given power, the objects, for which it was given, especially when those objects are expressed in the instrument itself, should have great influence in the construction.”29

. . . Where a power is remedial in its nature, there is much reason to contend, that it ought to be construed liberally. That was the doctrine of Mr. Chief Justice Jay, in Chisholm v. Georgia;30 and it is generally adopted in the interpretation of laws.31 But this liberality of exposition is clearly inadmissible, if it extends beyond the just and ordinary sense of the terms.

. . . In the interpretation of a power, all the ordinary and appropriate means to execute it are to be deemed a part of the power itself. This results from the very nature and design of a constitution. In giving the power, it does not intend to limit it to any one mode of exercising it, exclusive of all others. It must be obvious, (as has been already suggested,) that the means of carrying into effect the objects of a power may, nay, must be varied, in order to adapt themselves to the exigencies of the nation at different times.32 A mode efficacious and useful in one age, or under one posture of circumstances, may be wholly vain, or even mischievous at another time. Government presupposes the existence of a perpetual mutability in its own operations on those, who are its subjects; and a perpetual flexibility in adapting itself to their wants, their interests, their habits, their occupations, and their infirmities.33

. . . And this leads us to remark, in the next place, that in the interpretation of the constitution there is no solid objection to implied powers.37 Had the faculties of man been competent to the framing of a system of government, which would leave nothing to implication, it cannot be doubted, that the effort would have been made by the framers of our constitution. The fact, however, is otherwise. There is not in the whole of that admirable instrument a grant of powers, which does not draw after it others, not expressed, but vital to their exercise; not substantive and independent, indeed, but auxiliary and subordinate.38 There is no phrase in it, which, like the articles of confederation,39 excludes incidental and implied powers, and which requires, that every thing granted shall be expressly and minutely described. Even the tenth amendment, which was framed for the purpose of quieting the excessive jealousies, which had been excited, omits the word “expressly,” (which was contained in the articles of confederation,) and declares only, that “the powers, not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people;” thus leaving the question, whether the particular power, which may become the subject of contest, has been delegated to the one government, or prohibited to the other, to depend upon a fair construction of the whole instrument. The men, who drew and adopted this amendment, had experienced the embarrassments, resulting from the insertion of this word in the articles of confederation, and probably omitted it to avoid those embarrassments. A constitution, to contain an accurate detail of all the subdivisions, of which its great powers will admit, and of all the means, by which these may be carried into execution, would partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind. It would probably never be understood by the public. Its nature, therefore, requires, that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredient which compose those objects, be deduced from the nature of those objects themselves. That this idea was entertained by the framers of the American constitution, is not only to be inferred from the nature of the instrument, but from the language. Why, else, were some of the limitations, found in the ninth section of the first article, introduced? It is also, in some degree, warranted, by their having omitted to use any restrictive term, which might prevent its receiving a fair and just interpretation. In considering this point, we should never forget, that it is a constitution we are expounding.

Chief Justice Story, Chief Justice Marshall's principal protege, wrote his commentaries in 1833. I submit that his understanding remains the correct one.

Justice Story's Commentaries also contain an interesting footnote on original understanding. Story responded to Thomas Jefferson on the subject as follows:

 

Mr. Jefferson has laid down two rules, which he deems perfect canons for the interpretation of the constitution. . . . The second canon is, “On every question of construction [we should] carry ourselves back to the time, when the constitution was adopted; recollect the spirit manifested in the debates; and instead of trying, what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or invented against it, conform to the probable one, in which it was passed.” Now, who does not see the utter looseness, and incoherence of this canon. How are we to know, what was thought of particular clauses of the constitution at the time of its adoption? In many cases, no printed debates give any account of any construction; and where any is given, different persons held different doctrines. Whose is to prevail? Besides; of all the state conventions, the debates of five only are preserved, and these very imperfectly. What is to be done, as to the other eight states? What is to be done, as to the eleven new states, which have come into the Union under constructions, which have been established, against what some persons may deem the meaning of the framers of it? How are we to arrive at what is the most probable meaning? Are Mr. Hamilton, and Mr. Madison, and Mr. Jay, the expounders in the Federalist, to be followed. Or are others of a different opinion to guide us? Are we to be governed by the opinions of a few, now dead, who have left them on record? Or by those of a few now living, simply because they were actors in those days, (constituting not one in a thousand of those, who were called to deliberate upon the constitution, and not one in ten thousand of those, who were in favour or against it, among the people)? Or are we to be governed by the opinions of those, who constituted a majority of those, who were called to act on that occasion, either as framers of, or voters upon, the constitution? If by the latter, in what manner can we know those opinions? Are we to be governed by the sense of a majority of a particular state, or of all of the United States? If so, how are we to ascertain, what that sense was? Is the sense of the constitution to be ascertained, not by its own text, but by the “probable meaning” to be gathered by conjectures from scattered documents, from private papers, from the table talk of some statesmen, or the jealous exaggerations of others? Is the constitution of the United States to be the only instrument, which is not to be interpreted by what is written, but by probable guesses, aside from the text? What would be said of interpreting a statute of a state legislature, by endeavouring to find out, from private sources, the objects and opinions of every member; how every one thought; what he wished; how he interpreted it? Suppose different persons had different opinions, what is to be done? Suppose different persons are not agreed, as to “the probable meaning” of the framers or of the people, what interpretation is to be followed? These, and many questions of the same sort, might be asked. It is obvious, that there can be no security to the people in any constitution of government, if they are not to judge of it by the fair meaning of the words of the text; but the words are to be bent and broken by the “probable meaning” of persons, whom they never knew, and whose opinions, and means of information, may be no better than their own? The people adopted the constitution according to the words of the text in their reasonable interpretation, and not according to the private interpretation of any particular men. The opinions of the latter may sometimes aid us in arriving at just results; but they can never be conclusive. The Federalist denied, that the president could remove a public officer without the consent of the senate. The first congress affirmed his right by a mere majority. Which is to be followed?

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  1. This tussle reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave, between specific expressions of reality versus the principles of reality.  I tend to side with principles over specific expressions of reality, which may be due to extremely specific local circumstances.

    . . . [A] constitution of government, founded by the people for themselves and their posterity, and for objects of the most momentous nature, for perpetual union, for the establishment of justice, for the general welfare, and for a perpetuation of the blessings of liberty, necessarily requires, that every interpretation of its powers should have a constant reference to these objects. No interpretation of the words, in which those powers are granted, can be a sound one, which narrows down their ordinary import, so as to defeat those objects. That would be to destroy the spirit, and to cramp the letter. It has been justly observed, that “the constitution unavoidably deals in general language. It did not suit the purposes of the people, in framing this great charter of our liberties, to provide for minute specification of its powers, or to declare the means, by which those powers should be carried into execution. It was foreseen, that it would be a perilous, and difficult, if not an impracticable task.

    • GoRight on October 9, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    However, that does the “theory of a living Constitution” short shrift.

    Well, at least you recognize that the concept of a “living constitution” is only a “theory.”

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