constitutional avoidance

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Constitutional avoidance is the doctrine that, if possible, the Supreme Court should avoid ruling on constitutional issues, and resolve the cases before them on other (usually statutory) grounds.

In practice, this often means that if the Supreme Court is faced with two possible interpretations of a statute; one of which is plainly constitutional, and the other of which is of questionable constitutionality, the court will interpret the statute as having the plainly constitutional meaning in order to avoid the hard constitutional questions that would come with the other interpretation.  

For example, in Michaelson et al v. United States ex rel. Chicago, the court construed the Clayton Act’s requirement of a jury trial for contempt of court charges to apply exclusively to criminal contempt charges because legislation mandating jury trials for civil contempt of court raises constitutional questions. 

[Last updated in August of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]