Constitutional Interpretation.

Under a written constitu- tion, which is law and is binding on government, the practice of judicial review raises questions of the relationship between constitutional interpretation and the Constitution—the law that is construed. The legitimacy of construction by an unelected entity in a republican or democratic system becomes an issue whenever the construction is controversial, as it frequently is. Full consideration would carry us far afield, in view of the immense corpus of writing with respect to the proper mode of interpretation during this period.

Scholarly writing has identified six forms of constitutional argument or construction that may be used by courts or others in deciding a constitutional issue.759 These are (1) historical, (2) textual, (3) structural, (4) doctrinal, (5) ethical, and (6) prudential. The historical argument is largely, though not exclusively, associated with the theory of original intent or original understanding, under which constitutional and legal interpretation is limited to attempting to discern the original meaning of the words being construed as that meaning is revealed in the intentions of those who created the law or the constitutional provision in question. The textual argument, closely associated in many ways to the doctrine of original intent, concerns whether the judiciary or another is bound by the text of the Constitution and the intentions revealed by that language, or whether it may go beyond the four corners of the constitutional document to ascertain the meaning, a dispute encumbered by the awkward constructions, interpretivism and noninterpretivism.760 Using a structural argument, one seeks to infer structural rules from the relationships that the Constitution mandates.761 The remaining three modes are not necessarily tied to original intent, text, or structure, though they may have some relationship. Doctrinal arguments proceed from the application of precedents. Prudential arguments seek to balance the costs and benefits of a particular rule. Ethical arguments derive rules from those moral commitments of the American ethos that are reflected in the Constitution.

Although the scholarly writing ranges widely, a much more narrow scope is seen in the actual political-judicial debate. Rare is the judge who will proclaim a devotion to ethical guidelines, such, for example, as natural-law precepts. The usual debate ranges from those adherents of strict construction and original intent to those with loose construction and adaptation of text to modern-day conditions.762 However, it is with regard to more general rules of prudence and self-restraint that one usually finds the enunciation and application of limitations on the exercise of constitutional judicial review.


The six forms, or “modalities” as he refers to them, are drawn from P. BOBBITT, CONSTITUTIONAL FATE: THEORY OF THE CONSTITUTION (1982); P. BOBBITT, CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION (1991). Of course, other scholars may have different categories, but these largely overlap these six forms. E.g., Fallon, A Constructivist Coherence Theory of Constitutional Interpretation, 100 HARV. L. REV. 1189 (1987); Post, Theories of Constitutional Interpretation, in LAW AND THE ORDER OF CULTURE 13–41 (R. Post ed., 1991). [Back to text]
Among the vast writing, see, e.g., R. BORK, THE TEMPTING OF AMERICA (1990); J. ELY, DEMOCRACY AND DISTRUST: A THEORY OF JUDICIAL REVIEW (1980); L. TRIBE & M. DORF, ON READING THE CONSTITUTION (1991); H. WELLINGTON, INTERPRETING THE CONSTITUTION (1990); Symposium, Constitutional Adjudication and Democratic Theory, 56 N. Y. U. L. REV. 259 (1981); Symposium, Judicial Review and the Constitution: The Text and Beyond, 8 U. DAYTON L. REV. 43 (1983); Symposium, Judicial Review Versus Democracy, 42 OHIO ST. L.J. 1 (1981); Symposium, Democracy and Distrust: Ten Years Later, 77 VA. L. REV. 631 (1991). See also Farber, The Originalism Debate: A Guide for the Perplexed, 49 OHIO ST. L.J. 1085 (1989). [Back to text]
This mode is most strongly association with C. BLACK, STRUCTURE AND RELATIONSHIP IN CONSTITUTIONAL LAW (1969). [Back to text]
E.g., Meese, The Attorney General’s View of the Supreme Court: Toward a Jurisprudence of Original Intention, 45 PUB. ADMIN. REV. 701 (1985); Addresses: Construing the Constitution, 19 U. C. DAVIS L. REV. 1 (1985), containing addresses by Justice Brennan, id. at 2, Justice Stevens, id. at 15, and Attorney General Meese. Id. at 22. See also Rehnquist, The Notion of a Living Constitution, 54 TEX. L. REV. 693 (1976). [Back to text]