Friday, June 27, 2008

Strict and Loose Construnctionism

When I took history in middle school, I remember being taught that loose constructionism meant interpreting the "spirit of the constitution" while strict constructionism meant a literal reading of the words in the constitution. Only now looking back do I realize that this was left-wing propaganda in our education system. When using such phrases as the "spirit of the constitution," of course one is going to think that it is the correct legal philosophy. It's like naming a bill "The Patriot Act" -- only an enemy of America could disagree with it. It is political spin to associate loose constructionism with the spirit of the constitution and strict constructionism with a fundamentalist adherance to the words.

I am a strict constructionalist, but I would say I believe more in the spirit of the Constitution than people who would call themselves loose constructionists. The spirit of the constitution was to limit the power of the Federal goverment. Article I Section 8 lists the "Powers of Congress" and this pretty much means the power of the Federal government. I noticed while reading it today that the entire list of powers given to Congress easily fits on the screen of my laptop. There are only 18 powers given to Congress and I can read all of them without even scrolling.

Loose constructionists believe that somehow the founders couldn't have anticipated the changest that would take place over 200 years and they just forgot or couldn't have known to give Congress all the other powers they in fact needed. Therefore, we'll just interpret the Constitution to mean that all those other "necessary" powers are implied. But this is really going against the spirit of the document. As Thomas Jefferson, said the founders intended to bind the government "from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." They didn't forget to give the Federal goverment certain powers -- they wanted the government to have as little power as necessary to form a more perfect union. Section 8 lists only 18 powers given to Congress. Section 9 lists limits on these powers. But still, this wasn't enough to get many of the states to ratify the Constitution because they felt it didn't do enough to restrict some future government from asssuming additional powers. So they added 10 amendments. The first 8 listed specific things that Congress couldn't do that might infringe on liberty. The 9th amendment basically said that if they forgot any, Congress can't do those either. And the 10th amendment explicitly said that all other powers are reserved to the states. Open and closed. That's the spirit of the Constitution.

James Madison said, "The people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived. " There is only one legal mechanism for the Federal government to assume additional powers that aren't explicitly granted in the Constitution. It is to propose amendments and have three-quarters of the states approve them. The founders made the bar high because they wanted to make sure that this Federal government couldn't assume new powers unless the the people overwhelmingly supported it. The centralized concentration of power in Washington that we have today where the Federal government assumes power with almost no limitation is exactly the opposite of the spirit in which this country was founded.

I am taking back the phrase "spirit of the constitution" to mean the form of government that the founding fathers intended and that the states all agreed to. That is the only legitimate interpretation of the Constitution.

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