Gov: Interpreting the Constitution


Although the Constitution provided a firm foundation for a new national government, it let much to be decided by those who put this plan into practice. Some provisions that did not worked as hoped were later changed by the formal amendment process. Other features of the government were established by actions of Congress, the executive branch, and the courts. These changes did not alter the wording of the Constitution, but they did clarify its provisions. The Supreme Court plays an especially important role in our political system because it has the ultimate power to interpret or establish the meaning of the Constitution. Through its decisions, the Court helps to define the limits of constitutional rights and powers. Its decisions can affect your rights as a citizen. When judges are asked to apply the Constitution to a legal issue, they look to five sources of information:

  1. The text or exact wording of the Constitution itself.
  2. The original intent of the framers, what they meant or were trying to achieve, when they debated and wrote the Constitution.
  3. Court precedent or the past decisions of the Supreme Court.
  4. The practical consequences for society of a particular interpretation
  5. Basic moral and ethical values

Of these five, the most important are the text of the Constitution, original intent, and precedent.

Judges and legal scholars do not agree on how to interpret the Constitution. Some rely more on the original text or intent of the framers, while others give considerable weight to precedent, consequences, and values. These differences have given rise to debate over the degree to which the Constitution is a living document that should change with the times. On one side of the debate are those who favor strict construction or a literal reading of the Constitution. Legal scholars call this approach originalism. It holds that the original language of the Constitution and the intent of the framers must serve as primary guides to judicial interpretation. On the other side of the debate are those who favor loose construction or a flexible reading of the Constitution. Legal scholars call this approach interpretivism. It holds that the modern values and social consequences must be taken ino account in interpreting the Constitution.

Over the years, Court decisions reflecting both sides of the debate have helped to define the Constitution. Four cases that illustrate the Courts interpretive role are Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland, United States v. Nixon, and Goss v. Lopez.


Marbury v. Madison established the key principle of judicial review. This principle grants the Supreme Court the power to declare acts of Congress, the executive branch, and the states unconstitutional. In other words, the Court can overturn laws or government actions that do not comply with the Constitution. This principle is not stated directly in the Constitution, though it is implied in Article III, which outlines the Court’s judicial powers. It would take the Marbury case to make judicial review as accepted principle. Judicial review has played a key role in Court decisions since Marbury. One of its main consequences has been to allow citizens to challenge in court any government action that they believe violates the Constitution.


McCulloch v. Maryland affirmed the supremacy of the national government over the states and upheld the implied powers of Congress  under the Constitution. The decision in McCulloch v. Maryland had far reaching consequences. By confirming the Elastic Clause, the Court supported a broad expansion of congressional power.It also sent a clear message that in conflicts between federal and state law, federal law would prevail. In both regards, the Court’s decision helped to strengthen the national government.

United States v. Nixon reaffirmed the rule of law as a key principle of American government. The Supreme Court ruled that the president like all other citizens is subject to the rule of law. During the Senate investigation of the Watergate scandal, President Nixon claimed executive privilege and refused to release tapes of his Oval Office conversations.  The Supreme Court unanimously decided that the president had to surrender the Watergate tapes.

Goss v. Lopez accused school officials of violating student’s constitutional right to due process.The Court’s decision focused on an Ohio law that allowed public school principals to suspend a student for misconduct for up to 10 days without a hearing. The law did require that the student;s parents be notified of the suspension and the reasons for it. 



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: