Original Intent

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Original intent is an approach to constitutional interpretation. In this approach, people attempt to define the meaning of constitutional clauses according to what the framers meant when they wrote them. This approach requires a careful study of sources such as the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, the personal correspondence of the framers, and dictionaries and legal documents, all backed by a strong understanding of historical context.  A looser form of originalism assigns the original common understanding that the clauses would have had when they were written. This understanding can be inferred from dictionaries, speeches, pamphlets, and newspaper articles.

There are several other prominent approaches to constitutional interpretation. One is the “the Living Constitution.” In this approach, the meaning of the constitutional text changes over time, as social attitudes change, even without adopting formal constitutional amendments. Pragmatism is a third approach, in which constitutional clauses are defensible only when they contribute to the common good of the day.  Precedentalism is a fourth option in which previous court decisions are assumed to be correct.

Why this concept matters: Judges are often asked to assess whether a law is incompatible with various portions of the Constitution. The results depend upon how they make that assessment.

Source:  Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Volume 31(3), Summer 2008.

Want to learn more?  The source above contains multiple essays for and against originalism and other forms of constitutional interpretation. We highly encourage you to read through the full set.

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