Judicial interpretation

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Judicial interpretation is a theory or mode of thought that describes a general approach which the judiciary uses to interpret the law, particularly constitutional documents and legislation. This is a substantive issue in the United States to a greater extent than in other nations because the nation's highest court, the Supreme Court, has the power to overturn laws made by the legislature in a process called judicial review. In effect, the court can decide such matters as the legality of slavery as in the Dred Scott decision, desegregation as in the Brown v Board of Education decision, and abortion rights as in the Roe v Wade decision. As a result, how justices interpret the constitution, and the ways in which they approach this task, has a political aspect. Terms describing types of judicial interpretation can be ambiguous; for example, the term judicial conservatism can vary in meaning depending on what is trying to be "conserved". One can look at judicial interpretation along a continuum from judicial restraint to judicial activism, with various viewpoints along the continuum.

In the United States, there are various methods of constitutional interpretation:

  • Textualism involves judges consulting the actual language of the Constitution first, pondering about its meaning, and then using this standard as their final judgment. Government scholar John E. Finn wrote that this approach has "obvious appeal" for its simplicity but can be hampered when the language of the Constitution itself is ambiguous.[1]
  • Strict constructionism involves judges interpreting the text only as it was written; once a clear meaning has been established, there is no need for further analysis, according to this approach, which advocates that judges should avoid drawing inferences from previous statutes or the constitution and instead focus on exactly what was written.[2] For example, Justice Hugo Black argued that the First Amendment's wording in reference to certain civil rights that Congress shall make no law should mean exactly that: no law, no exceptions.
  • Founders' Intent involves judges trying to gauge the intentions of the authors of the Constitution. Problems can arise when judges try to determine which particular Founders or Framers to consult, as well as trying to determine what they meant based on often sparse and incomplete documentation.[1]
  • Originalism involves judges trying to apply the "original" meanings of various constitutional provisions.[1] For example, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia believed that the constitution should "mean the same thing in 2013 as its writers intended in 1787".[3]
  • Balancing happens when judges weigh one set of interests or rights against an opposing set, typically used to make rulings in First Amendment cases. For example, cases involving freedom of speech sometimes require justices to make a distinction between legally permissible speech and speech that can be restricted or banned for, say, reasons of safety, and the task then is for justices to balance these conflicting claims. The balancing approach was criticized by Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter who argued that the Constitution gives no guidance about how to weigh or measure divergent interests.[1]
  • Prudentialism discourages judges from setting broad rules for possible future cases, and advises courts to play a limited role.[1]
  • Doctrinalism considers how various parts of the Constitution have been "shaped by the Court's own jurisprudence", according to Finn.[1]
  • Precedent is judges deciding a case by looking to the decision of a previous and similar case according to the legal principle of stare decisis, by finding a rule or principle in an earlier case to guide their judgment in a current case.[1]
  • Structuralism is a method judges use by searching for the meaning of a particular constitutional principle only by "reading it against the larger constitutional document or context," according to Finn.[1] With this approach, judges try to understand how a particular ruling fits within the larger structure of the entire constitution.
  • Functionalism.[citation needed]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 John E. Finn (2006). "Part I: Lecture 4: The Court and Constitutional Interpretation". Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights. The Teaching Company. pp. 52, 53, 54. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "The Judiciary: The Power of the Federal Judiciary", The Social Studies Help Center
  3. RLG, October 17, 2013, The Economist, Antonin Scalia and Language, Retrieved February 22, 2016, "...Scalia ... famous in particular for his originalist reading of the constitution ... America’s founding document should mean the same thing in 2013 as its writers intended in 1787...."

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