A crash course on how to interpret the U.S. Constitution
Acton Institute Powerblog

A crash course on how to interpret the U.S. Constitution

Today is Constitution Day, a holiday celebrated in America every year on September 17, the anniversary of the day the framers signed the document.

The U.S. Constitution is arguably one of the most important legal documents in the history of the world. Because of this venerated status, though, many people assume that you need to be a Juris Doctor (J.D.) and an expert on recondite Constitutional law to understand how to read the document, much less interpret the Constitution. But as Michael Stokes Paulsen says, reading and understanding the Constitution is not an especially complicated intellectual exercise. It takes lawyers, judges, and law professors to turn it into something difficult and convoluted.

“Ninety-five percent of constitutional law amounts to deciding how to go about the enterprise of reading and applying the Constitution itself,” adds Paulsen. In the first of a two part series for Public Discourse, he outlines five broad categories of techniques one might use for interpretation.

First, there is the text. The Constitution is a written document, written at a particular time, addressed to a particular political community, reflecting certain assumptions, and designed to function as supreme written law on an ongoing basis. The simplest, most straightforward, and most correct way to interpret the Constitution is to read the words and phrases of the document and apply them in accordance with the meaning the words would have had to reasonably informed readers and speakers of the English language at the time the document was adopted.

That really is all there is to it. Sometimes the text uses terms of art or specialized eighteenth-century meanings that may require a little background knowledge or understanding of history. But that is not all that hard to acquire. In the end, simply reading and understanding the Constitution’s text is not an especially complicated intellectual exercise. It takes lawyers, judges, and law professors to turn it into something difficult and convoluted. And applying the text according to its natural meaning, in historical context, will properly answer most questions of constitutional law.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).