Methods of Constitutional Interpretation

From the the book Theories of Constitutional Interpretation by Rosenthal (2015), there are various methods of constitutional interpretations in United States, including: text and plain meaning, intent of the framers and adoption history, precedent and interpretive tradition, structure and effective functioning of institutions, extratextual values: Natural laws, and extratextual Values: contemporary Public Opinion. Chief Justice John Marshall used the constitutional interpretation method of text and plain meaning to establish and formalize the power of judicial review Marbury vs. Madison.

The Text and Plain Meaning Method

The text and plain meaning method suggests that the constitution is interpreted just by its direct and explicit declaration; how the court understands its contents. It is based on the jurisdiction of the government which no one has the power to claim any exemption apart from the meaning intended by the government (Rosenthal, p.2).

Intent of Framers Method

Intent of framers and adoption history suggests that the interpretation of advocates and defenders of the constitution should be considered in court (Rosenthal, p.3).

Precedent and Interpretive Tradition

In terms of precedent and interpretive tradition, the court interprets the constitution in line with how other judges have ruled in the past.

Structure and Effective Functioning of Institutions

The method of structure and effective functioning of institutions provides that the structure of institutions such as treaties should act according to the constitution in order to be applied in court.

The Use of Natural Laws

The use of Natural laws requires courts to consider the use of law determined by the nature of power upon which it is established (Rosenthal, p.8).

Contemporary Public Opinion Method

Lastly, Contemporary Public Opinion method requires courts to judge state policies in terms of equal treatment of all people regardless of their differences.

Case Study: Marbury v Madison

In the case of Marbury vs. Madison, Marbury and others were appointed by outgoing president John Adam to take various government positions. These appointments were not finalized until a new president took over. The new president Thomas Jefferson did not fulfill the appointments, and Marbury applied to the Supreme Court to compel the Secretary of State, James Madison to fulfill the appointments. The questions that arose were whether Marbury had the right to be appointed to the commission, whether Marbury has a remedy under the law, and whether the court had the authority to review the acts of the congress. Chief Justice John Marshall held in the case that Marbury had the right to be appointed to the commission, the law provided Marbury with remedy, and the Supreme Court had power to review the acts of the congress and determine their constitutionality.

This method of constitutional interpretation is the use of text and plain meaning. This method suggests that the constitution is the highest law of the government and it provides a direct and explicit declaration (Rosenthal, p.2). Therefore, any act of the congress which goes against the constitution does not apply, and gives the Supreme Court the power of judicial review. In this regard, the Supreme Court just interprets the constitution as it is and as much as it understands its meaning; and then rules in its favour.

This is explained in the example of Chisholm V. Georgia in which Chisholm sued the State of Georgia in the Supreme Court for the recovery of clothing supplied to Georgia during the revolutionary war. Georgia did not appear on the ground of sovereign immunity. From the plain meaning of the constitution, the court led by Justice Wilson argued that states were not sovereign. The federal government had all the powers to apply the laws within the constitution.

From Marbury v. Madison, it is clear that the congress seemed to contravene the provisions of the constitution on appointments which state that once appointments have been ratified by the president, they should be fulfilled. In this case, the president is not person but the head of the government. From the reading, the jurisdiction of the national government is considered to be paramount over that of any other body (p. 2). Therefore, the constitution should be interpreted the way it is and be used to provide the government with immunity. The Judicial Power of United States is to exercise the provisions of the constitution and follow the direct declaration of the constitution, which is a form of text and plain meaning method of constitutional interpretation.

Under the USA’s constitution, an order to appoint members of the commission starts to operate when the constitutional power of the executives to appoint them has been practiced. In the case of Marbury vs. Madison, the appointment of Marbury took effect since President Adams signed it. Therefore, the text and plain meaning of the constitution was applied in the case. Rosenthal says, “The general texture of the Constitution, will be satisfied, that the people of the United States intended to form themselves into a nation for national purposes”, p.2.  The constitution also guarantees American citizens the right of protection from injury. Therefore, Chief Justice John Marshal used the text and plain meaning of the constitution when he ruled that the law grants Marbury a remedy for the injuries caused upon him when he was denied his appointment. The laws of the country offered Marbury a remedy for being denied his legal right to the commission.

The judicial review suggests that the Judicial Department has the right to review other laws, and interpret what the law says. In Marbury v. Madison, the judge simply interpreted what the constitution said and reviewed the act of congress that denied Marbury his right to the commission. Therefore, the method used by the Chief Justice was the use of text and plain meaning of the constitution.



Rosenthal (2015). Theories of Constitutional Interpretation.

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