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What is Strict Constructionism?

By Dale Marshall
Updated: May 16, 2024

Strict constructionism is a legal theory that embraces a very narrow reading of statutes and laws, and essentially limits readers to what is written on the four corners of a given page — without considering context or circumstances. It’s most commonly discussed in the context of the U.S. Constitution, and is primarily an American legal concept. The U.S. Constitution is a often thought to be written in fairly broad terms, and there have been questions about how to best interpret in for a changing world for essentially as long as it has existed. Strict constructionism is one philosophy, but it isn’t the only one. Judges and justices who adopt this ideology typically look only at the Constitution as its words appear on the page and don’t consider any contextual cues, either on account of the era in which the Constitution was written or the events and circumstances of the case being decided. The inverse is usually what’s known as “broad interpretation,” in which a judge takes a more liberal view of what the Constitution says. There is a lot of ground in between, and many decision-makers fall somewhere in the middle.

Constitutional Interpretation Generally

The Constitution is the foundational document that gave rise to all laws in the United States, and is still the deciding voice when it comes to how laws are interpreted, changed, and created. It was drafted in 1787, and was formally ratified, or adopted, in 1788. The original document contains just seven articles, but more have been added over the years through a process known as amendment. Amendment doesn’t actually change or amend the language that already exists, but rather adds more clauses and stipulations. There are 27 accepted amendments to the Constitution, all of which shape how courts and other rule-making bodies must interpret it. Those adopting a strict methodology usually won’t look past their bare text.

What Use Looks Like

An example of this sort of strict reading happened in the case of Minnesota v. Carter (1998). At issue was whether a short-term guest in someone’s home, like a drug dealer making a sale, enjoyed the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, siding with the majority in the case, pointed to the text of the Fourth Amendment. According to his strict interpretation, while that amendment applies to people in their own houses, it doesn’t protect their short-term guests.

Other famous cases involving this sort of strict reading are the Dred Scott case of 1857, which famously asserted that a slave was a slave even if accompanying his owner in free states and stipulated that even freed slaves could never become citizens, and the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the “separate but equal” justification for racial segregation.

Relationship to Liberal Ideology

The flip-side of a strict interpretation is what’s commonly known as a “broad reading” approach to the Constitution. Broad interpretation typically infers congressional powers or individual rights that aren’t specifically acknowledged in the document. This approach is often aligned with judicial activism, and opponents frequently claim that it is an attempt by activist courts to create legislation from the bench, thereby usurping the legislature.

Two of the most famous Supreme Court cases of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Roe v. Wade (1973), rested on a broad interpretation of the Constitution rather than strict constructionism. The Brown court found that racial segregation in public schools violated the Constitution despite the existence of “equal” facilities. Similarly, the Roe court upheld a woman’s right to an abortion by virtue of a right to privacy hitherto unacknowledged in the Constitution. Both of these cases resulted in outcomes associated with liberal political ideology.

Finding a Balance

In the larger setting of political discourse, broad interpretation and judicial activism both have become associated with political liberalism, and strict constructionism with political conservatism and judicial restraint. These associations are not necessarily accurate, though, because both judicial activism and broad interpretation can be associated with Supreme Court decisions, like the Citizens United case of 2010, which concerned campaign funding and was widely praised by political conservatives. Many legal scholars and analysts urge a balance between strict and liberal reading, enabling justices and decision-makers to import some context without bending to its demands and challenges.

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Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Mar 24, 2014

Isn't there a committee that studies the Constitution and what the Founders meant when they wrote it? If there isn't, there should be one. When courts are facing a problem in regards to interpretation, they should advise the committee about it.

By SteamLouis — On Mar 24, 2014

@Soulfox-- I completely agree with you. Strict or broad constructionism should not become a loophole in law where people decide to use one or the other depending on which benefits them at the time.

This is why we need to stick to one form of interpretation and I think that should be strict constructionism. I that the the Founders were a great group of people who could predict problems. They wanted to set up a government and law system that would last and still be as effective after many years. I'm sure they must have thought about the issue of interpretation and worded the Constitution accordingly. I trust their judgment and feel that the Constitution should be taken literally.

By ZipLine — On Mar 23, 2014

This is a very sensitive issue and I'm not sure which side of the argument I'm on.

On one hand, I think that it can be problematic to interpret the Constitution too broadly. Courts may come to a wrong conclusion. At the same time, I also feel that strict constructionism may lead to the same problem. There is the risk that literal interpretation may cause judges to miss the essence of the Constitution or make decisions that are contrary to other aspects of the law. The article has already given great examples for these. I'm not sure which is the right way.

By Soulfox — On Mar 19, 2014

What is fascinating about strict constructionism as opposed to broad constructionism is what camp a person falls into on a given issue has a lot to do with his or her political persuasion. For example, a political liberal may be all for a broad interpretation of the First Amendment, but favor a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment. Such an individual would clearly be persuaded by a strain of liberalism that values free speech but holds that too much gun ownership is dangerous.

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