This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon is a bit unusual. Rather than explicating concepts that are important to legal theory, the point of this post is to debunk two concepts that sometimes seem to have very little content.
Strict construction is short hand for the idea that the United States Constitution should be strictly construed. The phrase appears to have become popular as a campaign slogan used by Richard Nixon when he ran for President in 1968. Nixon promised that he would appoint judges who were "strict constructionists" as opposed to the "judicial activism" that characterized the Warren Court, but the phrase has much earlier origins and may go back as far as the late eighteenth century.
The question is: what does strict construction mean? Is there really a method of constitutional interpretation described by the phrase "strict construction" or is this a mere political slogan? The confusion engendered by the term is illustrated by the following definition (offered on law.com):
strict construction (narrow construction) n. interpreting the Constitution based on a literal and narrow definition of the language without reference to the differences in conditions when the Constitution was written and modern conditions, inventions and societal changes. By contrast "broad construction" looks to what someone thinks was the "intent" of the framers' language and expands and interprets the language extensively to meet current standards of human conduct and complexity of society.
This definition borders on incoherence, opposing "strict construction" to both originalism and to the notion of a living constitution--ideas that might be thought antithetical to one another. So can we offer a better definition of strict construction? One way to approach this question is via the method of separation of cases. What are the possible meanings of strict construction?
- Strict Construction as "Textualism". One possibility is that strict construction refers to textualism--the idea that all constitutional interpretations must be grounded in the text of the Constitution. There are two difficulties with this suggestion. First, almost all of the Warren Court jurisprudence to which strict constructionism was opposed was rooted in the text of the Constitution in some way. Even the "unenumerated rights" jurisprudence (e.g. the right to privacy at issue in Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade) was grounded in the text of the 14th amendment. Second, this definition provides no content to the idea that constructions must be "strict."
- Strict Construction as "Literalism". Another possibility is that strict construction involves literal rather than purposive interpretations of the constitutional text. Perhaps, a strict construction is one that reads each clause of the Constitution to mean what the plain language says and nothing more. This idea is more promising than textualism, because it gives some real bite to the idea of "strictness" in construction. The difficulty is that the proponents of "strict construction" (and others) have rarely advocated a thorough-going literalism. That approach would, for example, mean that the First Amendment to the Constitution applies only to Congress (and not to the states, the executive, or to common-law doctrines). Other provisions of the Constitution don't seem to have any determinate literal meaning--the due process clause, the privileges and immunities clause, and the republican form of government clause come to mind.
- Strict Construction as "Originalism". Yet another possibility is that strict construction refers to some form of originalism, either original-intention originalism or original-meaning originalism. (The former looks to the intentions of the framers, whereas the latter looks to the way the text would have been understood by citizens when it was adopted.) Original-intentions originalism does not fit well with the label "strict constructionism" as it would allow courts to take into account intentions of the framers that are not "strictly speaking" in the constitutional text. The latter is a much better fit with the idea of strict construction, but the label "strict construction" is simply not very descriptive of the idea that the constitutional text should be read today in a way that fits the way it would have been read at the time it was adopted.
- Strict Construction as a "Presumption of Constitutionality". Yet another possibility is that the constitution should be construed against challenges to the constitutionality of legislation or executive action. The idea of a presumption in favor of the constitutionality of challenged action is certainly a coherent idea, but it is not clear why such a presumption should be called "strict construction." One might naturally assume that a strict construction of the constitution would invalidate government action that contravened the meaning of the constitutional text.
- Strict construction as narrow interpretation of delegated powers. One final possibility is that a strict construction of the Constitution is one that narrowly construes Congress's delegated powers.
We could go on, but I think you will now see the point. It simply isn't clear what "strict construction" means. Once you actually give content to the idea of strict construction, then the label isn't particularly descriptive and better names can be given to the view that "strict construction" could name. For this reason, most serious constitutional theorists avoid using the phrase "strict construction." If you think you have a good reason to continue using this phrase, you might give serious consideration to offering a very careful definition when you first introduce the term.
I want to add one important qualification to this discussion. It is entirely possible that "strict construction" once had a coherent meaning that has been "lost" with the passage of time. If so, then "strict construction" may yet have an important role to play as a concept in constitutional history, and possibly, via that history, in contemporary theories of constitutional interpretation.
Since the Warren Court era, conservative political discourse in the United States has applauded "strict construction" and condemned "judicial activism" is bad. Similarly, liberals defended Warren Court "activism." Recently, the political valence of "judicial activism" may have begun to shift--as conservatives endorse some "activism" by a conservative Supreme Court and liberals criticize these same decisions.
But what is judicial activism? Once again, it is not clear that this phrase has any real meaning. The standard argument against the use of the term "judicial activism" is that it translates best as "judicial decision making with which I disagree." To see why this is so, once again let us consider the possible interpretations of the phrase:
- Judicial Activism as Nonabstention. One idea would be that activist judges decide cases, whereas passive judges abstain. This would make sense of "judicial activism," but it is completely unattractive as a normative ideal. Judges need to decide cases; they need to be active in the sense that they resolve controversies.
- Judicial Activism as Exercise of the Power of Judicial Review. A second possibility is that judicial activism means striking down statutes or invalidating executive action. A passive judge approves the conduct of the other branches of government; an active judge strikes such conduct down. Once again, this interpretation is coherent, but hardly anyone thinks that it is per se wrong for judges to invalidate unconstitutional governmental action. Very few critics of "judicial activism" would criticize a court that struck down a federal statute requiring every American to attend the services of a particular denomination. Nor would many critics of judicial activism endorse a judicial decision that upheld a law reestablishing slavery. If "activism" means "exercising the power of judicial review to invalidate executive or legislative action," then it is a coherent concept, but it would seem to be "neutral" as between good and bad judging.
- Judicial Activism as Incorrect Exercise of the Power of Judicial Review. What is usually meant by judicial activism is not simply judicial activity or judicial activity invalidating action by the political branches. Rather, judicial activism means judicial activity that wrongfully invalidates action by the political branches. This naturally leads to the question, "What makes an exercise of the power of judicial review wrongful?" The answer to that question is a theory of constitutional interpretation. Different theories authorize different sets of invalidations. So, adherents of different constitutional theories would apply the label "judicial activism" to different sets of decisions.
And that's the problem with the phrase "judicial activism." One can define judicial activism in a way that doesn't boil down to "wrong," but those definitions make the phrase useless as a term of criticism. Or one can define judicial activism in such a way that it has real critical bite, but then the phrase ends up as a synonym for incorrect. Either way, "judicial activism" is not a useful term for constitutional theorists.
This post has had two goals. The first is to convince you that "strict construction" and "judicial activism" are simply not very useful as theory terms for academic constitutional lawyers. The second is to illustrate the importance of clear explication of constitutional concepts. Constitutional theory is a value-laden activity. Debates about positions in constitutional theory are frequently extensions of debates in moral and political theory generally. The vocabulary of constitutional theory is itself contested. Phrases like "strict construction" and "judicial activism" are normatively fraught, but they may not be well defined.
For that reason, it is very important for constitutional theorists to be very careful about their use of language.
Related Lexicon Entries
- Legal Theory Lexicon 019: Originalism
- Legal Theory Lexicon 043: Formalism and Instrumentalism
- Legal Theory Lexicon 063: Interpretation and Construction
Chad Oldfather, Defining Judicial Inactivism: Models of Adjudication and the Duty to Decide
Keenan D. Kmiec, The Origin and Current Meanings of "Judicial Activism" (This article is essentially reading for anyone who intends to use the phrase in constitutional scholarship.)
Frank Cross & Stefanie Lindquist, The Scientific Study of Judicial Activism
(This entry was last revised on March 8, 2015.)