Exclusion of Extra-Constitutional Tests.

Another maxim of constitutional interpretation is that courts are concerned only with the constitutionality of legislation and not with its motives, policy, or wisdom,778 or with its concurrence with natural justice, fundamental principles of government, or the spirit of the Constitution.779 In various forms this maxim has been repeated to such an extent that it has become trite, and has increasingly come to be incorporated in cases in which a finding of unconstitutionality has been made as a reassurance of the Court’s limited review. And it should be noted that at times the Court has absorbed natural rights doctrines into the text of the Constitution, so that it was able to reject natural law per se and still partake of its fruits and the same thing is true of the laissez faire principles incorporated in judicial decisions from about 1890 to 1937.780


“We fully understand . . . the powerful argument that can be made against the wisdom of this legislation, but on that point we have no concern.” Noble State Bank v. Haskell, 219 U.S. 104 (1911) (Justice Holmes for the Court). See also Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 120 (1958) (Justice Frankfurter dissenting). A supposedly hallowed tenet is that the Court will not look to the motives of legislators in determining the validity of a statute. Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. (6 Cr.) 87 (1810); United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968); Palmer v. Thompson, 403 U.S. 217 (1971). Yet an intent to discriminate is a requisite to finding at least some equal protection violations, Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229 (1976); Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252 (1977), and a secular or religious purpose is one of the parts of the tripartite test under the Establishment Clause. Committee for Pub. Educ. and Religious Liberty v. Regan, 444 U.S. 646, 653 (1980), and id. at 665 (dissent). Other constitutional decisions have also turned upon the Court’s assessment of purpose or motive. E.g., Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960); Child Labor Tax Case, 259 U.S. 20 (1922). [Back to text]
Cf. Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 522 (1965) (Justice Black dissenting). But note above the reference to the ethical mode of constitutional argument. [Back to text]
E.g., Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905); United States v. Butler, 297 U.S. 1 (1936). [Back to text]