Strict Constructionists: Definition & Approach

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

Interpreting statutes and state and federal constitutions is a serious matter. In fact, interpreting these laws may affect the lives of literally hundreds of millions of citizens. In this lesson, you'll learn how a strict constructionist interprets the law.

Strict Construction Defined

Meet Judge Smith. He's a federal appellate court judge who is routinely required to interpret statutes and the U.S. Constitution in order to resolve the appeals cases submitted to him and his fellow appellate court judges. While it may come as a surprise to you, there are several different ways to interpret the language found in a statute or constitution. Judge Smith follows the strict constructionism theory of interpretation. Let's take a quick look at his approach.

According to Black's Law Dictionary, strict construction entails 'a close or rigid reading and interpretation of a law.' A strict constructionist like Judge Smith believes that a law should be interpreted by relying only upon a reasonable literal or technical reading of what the language in the document means. If the language is clear and unambiguous, it needs to be followed. Fairness or negative consequences that may not have been intended doesn't matter so long as the words are unambiguous.

Judge Smith's colleague, Judge Jones, disagrees with strict constructionism and is willing to engage in liberal construction of legal language. In liberally construing a law, Judge Jones looks to determine the purpose or reason behind the law and construe the law to accomplish that purpose. Unlike Judge Smith, he's willing to ignore the literal interpretation of terms or minor technicalities that would defeat the reason behind the law so long as the language can reasonably be interpreted in more than one way and the interpretation accords with the overall reason or purpose behind the law. For example, defining written language, images, conduct or campaign contributions as 'speech' within the meaning of the First Amendment is arguably a liberal construction of the term 'speech.'

Let's look at an example torn from the pages of an important recent Supreme Court decision to illustrate strict construction and liberal construction.

King v. Burwell

In 2015, the United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in King v. Burwell which involved a key provision in The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as 'Obamacare'). The petitioners in the case did not want to pay for health insurance and claimed that they would not be entitled to tax credits from the federal government because the tax credits under the law are only available if the insurance is purchased on 'an Exchange established by the State.' You can think of an exchange as a marketplace to buy insurance. Since their states, like many states, opted not to form an exchange, the federal government set up the Exchange in their states as provided for under the act. The issue boiled down to what the phrase 'an Exchange established by the State' means.

Utilizing strict constructionism, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the wording was unambiguous. Justice Scalia simply applied the plain meaning of the words and concluded that an exchange established in a state by the federal government is not an exchange established by the state because the federal government established the exchange.

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