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Encyclopedia > Strict constructionism

Strict constructionism is a philosophy of judicial interpretation and legal philosophy that limits judicial interpretation to the meanings of the actual words and phrases used in law, and not on other sources or inferences. Adherents look strictly at the text in question rather than relying either on legislative intent (as gleaned from contemporaneous commentaries or legislative debate) or on metaphysical ideas such as natural law. Some of the doctrine's most forceful proponents have been Supreme Court of the United States Justice Hugo Black and former U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Chief Justice of Australia, Owen Dixon. To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup. ... There are several theories as to how judges ought to interpret legal sources (legislation, case law and constitutional provisions). ... Philosophy of law is a branch of philosophy and jurisprudence which studies basic questions about law and legal systems, such as what is the law?, what are the criteria for legal validity?, what is the relationship between law and morality?, and many other similar questions. ... In law, legislative intent is a factor used to interpret statutes. ... Plato and Aristotle, by Raphael (Stanza della Segnatura, Rome). ... It has been suggested that Law of nature (precept) be merged into this article or section. ... The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest judicial body in the United States and leads the judicial branch of the United States federal government. ... Hugo Black Hugo LaFayette Black (February 27, 1886 – September 25, 1971) was a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1937 - 1971). ... William Hubbs Rehnquist (October 1, 1924 – September 3, 2005) was an American lawyer, jurist and political figure, who served as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States and later as the Chief Justice of the United States. ... The Chief Justice of Australia is the senior justice of the High Court of Australia and the highest-ranking judicial officer in the Commonwealth of Australia. ... Sir Owen Dixon, GCMG, KBE, PC (1886 - 1972), Australian judge and politician, was the sixth Chief Justice of Australia. ...

Contents


Rationale

The underlying argument behind strict constructionism is that if a legislature truly wants to enact a particular law, they are capable of writing it down in plain English and passing it, and it is not the job of the judiciary to reconstruct what the legislature's intent could have been. Supporters interpret this position as judging based on what the law is, not what it should be.


Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 5 -6 (1957), "[t]he United States is entirely a creature of the Constitution. Its power and authority have no other source." The Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C., (large image) The Supreme Court of the United States, located in Washington, D.C., is the highest court (see supreme court) in the United States; that is, it has ultimate judicial authority within the United States... Hugo Black Hugo LaFayette Black (February 27, 1886 – September 25, 1971) was a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1937 - 1971). ... Reid v. ...


Criticisms

  • Some argue that the term is vague and difficult to apply. Noting that it largely came into prominence as part of Richard Nixon's presidential campaign, they point to a memo written to Nixon in which the term is explained:
A judge who is a "strict constructionist" in constitutional matters will generally not be favorably inclined toward claims of either criminal defendants or civil rights plaintiffs—the latter two groups having been the principal beneficiaries of the Supreme Court's "broad constructionist" reading of the Constitution. (William H. Rehnquist in a memo to Richard Nixon about Supreme Court nominees)
  • Opponents of this view claim the term is merely a codeword for judges who tend to support conservative causes, and has no intrinsic meaning of its own.[1]
  • Ronald Dworkin argues that strict constructionism is irreconcilable with the interpretive nature of law.

Richard Milhous Nixon (January 9, 1913 – April 22, 1994) was the 37th President of the United States, serving from 1969 to 1974. ... William H. Rehnquist has served as the Chief Justice of the United States since 1986. ... Richard Milhous Nixon (January 9, 1913 – April 22, 1994) was the 37th President of the United States, serving from 1969 to 1974. ... Ronald Dworkin (born 1931) is an American philosopher, and professor at University College London and the New York University School of Law. ...

Justice Scalia and strict constructionism

Although U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is often incorrectly cited as a prominent advocate of strict constructionism, Scalia objects to that description, stating instead that "the text should be interpreted neither strictly nor sloppily, but reasonably"; a more accurate description of the views held by Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas, is textualist. Textualism is usually defined as interpreting words according to their ordinary and common public understanding. Though some use the two terms interchangeably, many contemporary legal theorists dislike the term "strict constructionism" because it is somewhat vague; even those who advocate broader interpretations of statutory or constitutional language could argue that they are more faithful to the intent and thus actually strict constructionists. Strict constructionism may also sometimes be confused with the "plain meaning" approach, which looks to dictionary definitions without reference to common public understandings. Scalia differentiates the two by pointing out that "he uses a cane" means "he walks with a cane," not what a strict use of the words might suggest. Many textualists object to the label "strict constructionist" because it is easily confused (or purposefully misrepresented) with "plain meaning" type approaches. The Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C., (large image) The Supreme Court of the United States, located in Washington, D.C., is the highest court (see supreme court) in the United States; that is, it has ultimate judicial authority within the United States... Antonin Gregory Scalia (born March 11, 1936) is an American jurist and the second most senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. ... Clarence Thomas (born June 23, 1948) is an American jurist and has been an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States since 1991. ... Textualism is a Formalist theory of statutory interpretation which holds that a Statutes ordinary meaning should govern its interpretation, as opposed to inquiries into non-textual sources such as the intention of the legislature in passing the law, the problem it was intended to remedy, or substantive questions of...


Strict constructionism is also sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably with "originalism." Again, the two terms are not necessarily the same. For example, strict constructionism as applied to statutory interpretation may not conform precisely with originalism as applied to constitutional interpretation. Thus, Justice Scalia is firmly opposed to the use of any legislative materials to discern the "intent" of the drafters of a statute, but advocates the use of contemporary historical materials and records to interpret the intended meaning of terms in the U.S. Constitution. In other words, one can be a strict constructionist with respect to statutes, but not an originalist with respect to the Constitution, or vice versa. Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy. ...


Strict constructionism also does not necessarily require (though it almost always involves) adherence to original meanings. For example, one can strictly construe the meaning of terms according to present ordinary meaning, rather than historical ordinary meaning. Similarly, originalism does not necessarily require strict interpretation according to contemporaneous public understanding of the Constitution. "Soft originalism" argues that, at least with respect to certain clauses in the Constitution, the Founding Fathers intended terms to embody larger, abstract concepts that could evolve over time. "Due process of law," for example, is deliberately vague in order to allow subsequent generations to incorporate their refinements on legal procedure. In support of this view, soft originalists cite comments such as Thomas Jefferson's comment to James Madison, "No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation."


See also

Judicial activism describes an act of judicial interpretation that critics consider to take on suspected political reasoning, rather than an evaluation of applicable law. ... Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy. ... The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy defines broad construction as a theory of interpretation of the Constitution that holds the spirit of the times or the values of the justices and the needs of the nation. ...

Reference

Slate article with the Rehnquist quote


  Results from FactBites:
 
Is this ‘Strict Constructionism’ in Action? (2275 words)
So when George W. Bush has spoken about appointing strict constructionists to the federal courts, he has seemed to be announcing himself to be a principled conservative, favoring a strict adherence to what the Constitution actually says, with due deference to what is known about the intentions of the people who framed it.
True strict constructionists decry what they call “results-oriented” readings of the law, that is, readings in which the desired outcome comes first and then an argument is formulated to reach that conclusion, rather than just following the law where it leads.
Strict constructionists contest the notion that the Constitution changes with the times and circumstances, thus permitting judges leeway in construing what the text, written in the past, should mean in the present.
Strict Constructionism and Constitutional Interpretations (776 words)
Generally speaking, libertarians use historical strict construction the most, as the founders of the United States are strongly libertarian by today’s standards, and hence a literal reading of the Federalist Papers supports libertarian views.
Similarly, conservatives tend to support textual strict construction, because the United States’ constitution is very implicit on civil liberties, which conservatives usually oppose, but very explicit on issues that favor conservatism such as gun rights, the electoral system, and treason.
Liberals rarely support strict construction, but when they do, they almost always support its structural form; this is not limited to the United States, but is rather part of modern liberalism at large: the government should be limited by a constitution, but the constitution shouldn’t be viewed as scripture.
  More results at FactBites »

 
 

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