Steven Aftergood: CRS on Modes of Constitutional Interpretation

Cultural Intelligence, Ethics, Government
Steven Aftergood


The US Constitution leaves many basic questions of constitutional law unanswered, whether because they could not be anticipated or because the text is broadly worded or ambiguous.

Consequently, “Interpretation is necessary to determine the meaning of ambiguous provisions of the Constitution or to answer fundamental questions left unaddressed by the drafters,” a new report from the Congressional Research Service explains.

But there are different ways to perform such interpretation that may yield different results.

The new CRS report provides a helpful introduction to the most common “modes” of interpretation, including textualism, original meaning, judicial precedent, pragmatism, moral reasoning, national identity, structuralism, and historical practices.

Interpreting the Constitution is not a task left solely to the Supreme Court; it is also a responsibility of Members of Congress. “Members should vote upon legislation based on their own constitutional interpretations, which may be at odds with the Court’s,” wrote former Sen. Russ Feingold, but “they should not vote for legislation without any thought whatsoever regarding its constitutionality.”

See Modes of Constitutional Interpretation, March 15, 2018.

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