Strict constructionism

From Academic Kids

Strict constructionism is a philosophy of judicial interpretation and legal philosophy that holds to the meanings of words and phrases as used when they were written down. Adherents look strictly at the text in question rather than relying on metaphysical ideas such as natural law, or by trying to glean legislative intent from contemporaneous commentaries or legislative debate. Two of the doctrine's most forceful proponents have been Justice Hugo Black and Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is usually cited as a prominent advocate of this philosophy, but Scalia demurs, averring that "the text should be interpreted neither strictly nor sloppily, but reasonably"; a more accurate description of the views held by Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas, is originalist.



Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 5 -6 (1957), "[t]he United States is entirely a creature of the Constitution. Its power and authority have no other source."

The underlying rationale of strict constructionism is that if a legislature truly wants to enact a particular law, they are quite capable of writing it down in plain English and passing it, and it is not the job of judge to play around with legal fictions or psychoanalysis to reconstruct what the legislature's subconscious intent could have been. Thus, for example, Justice Scalia refuses to look at committee reports that often accompany bills to the House or Senate floor, because the report reflects the views of only a small number of legislators and their staff, and often is not read by all the legislators before they vote as the Committee of the Whole.

A judge who is a "strict constructionist" in constitutional matters will generally not be favorably inclined toward claims of either criminal defendants or civil rights plaintiffs—the latter two groups having been the principal beneficiaries of the Supreme Court's "broad constructionist" reading of the Constitution. (William H. Rehnquist in a memo to Richard Nixon about Supreme Court nominees)


  • Some argue that the term is vague and difficult to apply. Noting that it largely came into prominence as part of Richard Nixon's presidential campaign, they point to a memo written to Nixon in which the term is explained.
  • Opponents of this view claim the term is merely a codeword for judges who tend to support conservative causes.
  • Ronald Dworkin argues that strict constructionism is irreconcilable with the interpretive nature of law.

See Also



Slate article with the Rehnquist quote ( Template:Law-stub


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