- Published: 08 January 2012
he Supreme Court's power is limited with regard to interpreting the Constitution--ascertaining and defining the intent with which it was framed and ratified (adopted)
(Author's preliminary comment)
The rule is well-settled that the object of interpretation, or construction, of a provision of the Constitution ". . . is to give effect to the intent of its framers, and of the people in adopting it." Lake County v. Rollins, 130 U.S. 662, 670 (1889). In this opinion, the Court had earlier made it expressly clear that by the phrase, "the people in adopting it," the meaning was "the people who voted it into existence." This referred to the American people's intent expressed through their duly appointed agents--the members of the State Ratifying Conventions--in 1787-1788; or later, with regard to each amendment, in either the State Ratifying Conventions or the State Legislatures, depending upon which method of ratification was used in any particular instance to approve the amendment.
The basic rule of interpretation is clear and has been repeatedly stated by the Supreme Court, for example in South Carolina v. United States, 199 U.S. 437 (1905) at pages 448-449:
"The Constitution is a written instrument. As such its meaning does not alter. That which it meant when adopted it means now. Being a grant of powers to a government its language is general, and as changes come in social and political life it embraces in its grasp all new conditions which are within the scope of the powers in terms conferred. In other words, while the powers granted do not change, they apply from generation to generation to all things to which they are in their nature applicable. This in no manner abridges the fact of its changeless nature and meaning. Those things which are within its grants of power, as those grants were understood when made, are still within them, and those things not within them remain still excluded. As said by Mr. Chief Justice Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandlord, 19 How. 393, 426:
" 'It is not only the same in words, but the same in meaning, and delegates the same powers to the Government, and reserves and secures the same rights and privileges to the citizens; and as long as it continues to exist in its present form, it speaks not only in the same words, but with the same meaning and intent with which it spoke when it came from the hands of its framers, and was voted on and adopted by the people of the United States. Any other rule of construction would abrogate the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere reflex of the popular opinion or passion of the day.'
"It must also be remembered that the framers of the Constitution were not mere visionaries, toying with speculations or theories, but practical men, dealing with the facts of political life as they understood them, putting into form the government they were creating, and prescribing in language clear and intelligible the powers that government was to take. Mr. Chief Justice Marshall, in Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1, 188, well declared:
" 'As men whose intentions require no concealment, generally employ the words which most directly and aptly express the ideas they intend to convey, the enlightened patriots who framed our Constitution, and the people who adopted it, must be understood to have employed words in their natural sense, and to have intended what they have said.' "
Author's further comment
Immediately preceding the above-quoted statement from the opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case--60 U.S. (19 Howard) 393 at 426, the Court had in that opinion made further clarifying remarks about negro slaves in explanation of its refusal to violate the intent of the Constitution--the intent of its Framers and Adopters--merely because of changed popular sentiment about slavery. It stated:
"No one, we presume, supposes that any change in public opinion or feeling, in relation to this unfortunate race, in the civilized nations of Europe or in this country, should induce the court to give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted. Such an argument would be altogether inadmissible in any tribunal called on to interpret it. If any of its provisions are deemed unjust, there is a mode prescribed in the instrument itself by which it may be amended; but while it remains unaltered, it must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption." (Italics added)
Author's Note: The above-mentioned Dred Scott case concerned the negro slave of that name and this case--in which he sought his freedom---has ever since been famous for political as well as constitutional reasons.