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Strict Constructionism: Definition, Beliefs & Examples

Strict Constructionism: Definition, Beliefs & Examples
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  • 0:00 What Is Strict…
  • 0:54 Strict Constructionists
  • 1:51 Criticisms
  • 2:35 Examples
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

Strict constructionism describes a legal theory that embraces a narrow reading of legal texts. In this lesson, you will be introduced to the concept of strict constructionism through definitions and examples.

What Is Strict Constructionism?

One of the hardest parts of a judge's job is making difficult, and at times unpopular, legal decisions. Because the United States Constitution was written in relatively general terms, there have always been questions about how to best interpret it. Strict constructionism is a legal philosophy that applies a narrow, or strict, interpretation to a legal text, like the U.S. Constitution.

Under strict constructionism, a judge can interpret a text as it is written, considering only what is presented within the four corners of the legal document. While strict constructionism is often thought of as a way of interpreting the Constitution, it may also be used to interpret laws and other legal texts.

Strict Constructionists

Judges who adhere to this legal philosophy are known as strict constructionists. When reading a law or applying constitutional principles, strict constructionists ignore context and consider only the words on the page. The circumstances or potential result of a judicial ruling do not factor into a strict constructionist's decision-making process. They believe that legal texts carry the same meaning from the day that it is written until the day it is amended or repealed.

Strict constructionists seek to understand and apply the original meaning of the legal text. They do not rely upon political or personal motivations when applying the law. Likewise, they aren't driven to hand down a particular ruling or judgment for the sake of obtaining a specific result. That approach is known as judicial activism.

Criticisms

In the strictest sense, opponents argue that the original meaning of the constitution, as it was written in 1788, can't be applied to modern legal dilemmas. Sometimes, a judge's strict interpretation of a text can lead to unusual, or even absurd, results. This is referred to as the doctrine of absurdity.

For instance, imagine two parties negotiating the sale of a boat. After they agree on the terms, they work together to draft a contract. However, due to a clerical error, the contract refers to a 'boar' instead of 'boat,' which in the strictest sense would obligate the seller to sell a boar, instead of a boat, to the buyer.

Examples

Thomas Jefferson's opposition of the creation of a national bank may be the earliest example of strict constructionism. In 1790, Alexander Hamilton proposed the establishment of a national bank that would issue currency to the entire country. In opposing the plan as unconstitutional, Jefferson referred to Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which states that Congress has the power to 'coin money (and) regulate the value thereof,' but not the explicit power to create a national bank. Hamilton won out in the end.

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