Modes of Constitutional Interpretation

03.21.18 | 2 min read | Text by 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.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

The U.S. Export Control System and the Export Control Reform Initiative, updated March 15, 2018

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), updated March 13, 2018

China-U.S. Trade Issues, updated March 14, 2018

Pass-Throughs, Corporations, and Small Businesses: A Look at Firm Size, updated March 15, 2018

Jurisdiction Stripping: When May Congress Prohibit the Courts from Hearing a Case?CRS Legal Sidebar, March 15, 2018

Membership of the 115th Congress: A Profile, updated March 19, 2018

Women in Congress, 1917-2018: Service Dates and Committee Assignments by Member, and Lists by State and Congress, updated March 19, 2018