Essay: The Constitution of the United States

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  • Subject area(s): Politics essays
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  • Published on: January 23, 2019
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The Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1789. Along with that came the creation of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter in all legal disputes and has a significant amount of power regarding the legality of laws passed by Congress. That being said, the way the Justices interpret the Constitution is of utmost importance in regards to the actual process they use to interpret not only the Constitution but the potential statutes and amendments that must be decided on. The decisions that are announced and the precedent set by the Justices have affect, not only directly on the law in question, but also on the creation of new laws to be put forth by Congress. The Justices have the ability to create a ripple effect that will last far beyond their lifetime. It is imperative to the longevity of the United States that the interpretations used to decide on cases will set a precedent in itself for the sake of the future.
 
There are four common ways to interpret the Constitution: Strict Constructionism, Loose Constructionism, Living Constitution, and Framer’s Intent. Strict Constructionism is where the explicit text of the Constitution is referenced to garner a meaning for a specific clause and where that meaning is then applied to the law in question. That is in contrast with Loose Constructionism where the same principles apply to the law in question and the principles of the Constitution are leading the Justices to the ruling. For example, the First Amendment now applies to social media and other technological outlets instead of just print because it is the principle of speech that is in question, not the medium that is used. Interpreting the Constitution as a “living” document is when it is read as something that constantly needs to be updated as society as a whole, changes along with technology because the framers could not see all of the possibilities and “what-ifs” that were to come. Living is most often contrasted with Framer’s Intent wherein the Constitution is read as not necessarily what was explicitly said but using historical context to determine what the purpose was of a certain clause, much interpretation using this style necessarily requires historical knowledge that can be hard or even impossible to verify. The most common ways to interpret the Constitution are Living Constitution and Framers Intent.

An early instance of Strict Constitutional interpretation was when Thomas Jefferson was in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s proposal for a national bank. Thomas Jefferson’s reasoning behind his opposition was that while Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the authority necessary to print money and whatever else is necessary for the printing of it, the Constitution does not explicitly grant authority to Congress to create a bank. By giving more priority to what the Constitution said outright, instead of what it implied, Jefferson was reading the Constitution in a Constructionist manner.

A more recent example of Loose Constructionism is the case: National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (1937). In this case, an associate of the Amalgamated Association of Iron & Tin Workers of America claimed to the NLRB that the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation fired ten employees for union activity. The NLRB ordered Jones & Laughlin to rehire the ten employees but the corporation refused. Jones & Laughlin claimed that the NLRB was unconstitutional on the grounds that it governed labor relations instead of commerce. By using a Loose Interpretation, the court came to the decision that since the steel industry was such a vital part of the national economy, it was absolutely necessary to interpret the Commerce Clause in such a way that Congress could have the authority to regulate it in order to not have any internal issues that externally affect the national economy.

An example of Living Constitution would be the case: Lochner v. New York (1905). In the case of Lochner v. New York, a man petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case on the grounds that a recently passed law that was enacted to prevent physical harm to himself and that would prevent him from working the hours that he wanted to (less than 60 hours), violated his right to freedom of contract with an employer. The Court used a Living Constitution interpretation to decide the case in the way that brought the Constitution into the 20th century.

Lastly, an instance of the Framer’s intent interpretation would be the case: Heller v. District of Columbia (2008). In Heller v. District of Columbia, it was found unconstitutional, on the grounds of the Second Amendment, to outright ban the sale of handguns and placing requirements on the storage of other firearms. Framer’s intent was used in helping to decide this case and is best exemplified by Justice Scalia’s opinion: The Second Amendment provides:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In interpreting this text, we are guided by the principle that “[t]he Constitution was written to be understood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in their normal and ordinary as distinguished from technical meaning… normal meaning may of course include an idiomatic meaning, but it excludes secret or technical meanings that would not have been known to ordinary citizens in the founding generation” (Scalia 2008).

The opinion of Justice Scalia is exemplary of the idea of Framer’s intent because instead of focusing on bringing the past to the present, he focuses on trying to maintain the same principles from the past in the present.

While many Supreme Court cases and decisions have gone largely unnoticed by the general population, the decisions still have a profound impact on the day-to-day life of an individual. What is driving all of the decisions made in the Court ultimately comes down to nine individual’s interpretation of a document from 1789.

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