There is Only ONE Right Way to Interpret the Constitution


I’m big on this. Huge. Massive. I have a friend who reads this blog who disagrees with me on this. That’s cool, but on this issue, I have no problem with saying that he is dead wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion or open for debate (like some of the other things we tussle about); it’s cut-and-dried, a matter of simple honesty and integrity. Right now, we have four Supreme Court justices who read the Constitution rightly; four who clearly read it wrongly, and one who is a doofus who can’t seem to make up his mind (which is better, I guess, than most of the other Kennedys we know, who are consistently wrong). Comrade Obama will nominate only people who interpret the Constitution wrongly to serve on the Supreme Court (which is one reason–among several–why those who supported him for the presidency made, in my judgment, an awful mistake); the only silver lining there is that he will likely be replacing the misguided with the misguided (as the most likely justices to next step down are pass away are, in this order, Stevens, Ginsburg, and Souter, embarrassments all).

But the point of this post is to refer those interested to a post at Between Two Worlds on the topic of “Interpreting the Constitution”. I plan to follow the further links there, and I’d encourage you to as well. Particularly trenchant are remarks by the great Clarence Thomas, who says:

Let me put it this way; there are really only two ways to interpret the Constitution — try to discern as best we can what the framers intended or make it up. No matter how ingenious, imaginative or artfully put, unless interpretive methodologies are tied to the original intent of the framers, they have no more basis in the Constitution than the latest football scores. To be sure, even the most conscientious effort to adhere to the original intent of the framers of our Constitution is flawed, as all methodologies and human institutions are; but at least originalism has the advantage of being legitimate and, I might add, impartial.

Amen and amen. Either we try to sort out modern-day issues and dilemmas with an appeal to what the Constitution meant to those who drafted it, or we are pulling our Constitutional “interpretation” out of thin air, making it up as we go, flying the country blind by the seat of our pants (sort of like what Congress and the Prez seem to be doing in their respective branches of government these days).

Sometimes, it really is that simple…


  1. Derlin on March 25, 2009 at 12:41 am

    I think the same can be said for scripture. The Bible was written for men and women living at the time, though it certainly has relevance to me today. Before I can properly understand what the Bible says to me today, I need to understand what it meant to the original audience way back then. Otherwise, even though I might guess correctly sometimes, I’ll be dead wrong other times.

    • Byron on March 25, 2009 at 10:53 am

      Absolutely spot-on, Derlin; the same holds true. We must remember that while all the Bible was written for us, it was not written to us, per se. And our first task is to evaluate what it meant to those who heard it, understanding as best we can what the writers were trying to communicate in the times in which they lived and wrote. Only then can we do the task of applying it to our current times/situations. II Chronicles 7:14, for instance, isn’t a text of Scripture that we can just pluck right out of its context and apply to 21st-century Americans without first doing the above tasks.

      Beyond this, there must be the confidence that Scripture is without error in the original manuscripts. There is a parallel to Constitutional interpretation there, not “inerrancy”, per se, but the idea that the authority of each piece inheres to the text itself: Scripture, because it came from God (Who cannot inspire error), and the Constitution, because it was written by men in positions of authority whose full intent was that their words be taken seriously, understood as they meant them, and applied consistently. And it is liberals, theological and political, who tend to abuse each of these (that’s a tad broad-brush, particularly politically, I understand). A significant portion of that stems from a general disdain for authority, which tends to be discouraged by conservatives (who understand that authority, though not necessarily infallible, is infallibly necessary), and which tends to be encouraged by liberals (“Question Authority”).

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