Strict Construction Has Been Debated For More Than 200 Years

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

The concept of strict construction has usually been associated with the United States Supreme Court and how some of its members interpret the Constitution. Someone who is a strict constructionist believes that the literal meaning of the words should be adopted, but it can also mean that the language used in the document should be given the meaning that was given to the words at the time of its creation.

Early debate over strict construction and the Constitution

One of the earliest, so-called, strict constructionists was Thomas Jefferson who opposed Alexander Hamilton's proposal for the creation of a national bank under the control of the federal government with the power to print money. Jefferson was a champion of the rights of the states. This included his belief that only state governments had the authority under the Constitution to create new banks.

According to Jefferson, a strict construction of the language used in the Constitution could lead to no conclusion other than those powers not specifically conferred on the federal government remaining within the sole province of the states. Hamilton disagreed and argued that Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 of the Constitution gave Congress the power to enact laws that were necessary and proper to carrying out the powers of the federal government.

It was the acceptance of Hamilton's much looser interpretation of the Constitution than the strict construction applied by Jefferson that convinced President Washington to sign the legislation creating national banking system in the U.S. The debate engaged in by Jefferson and Hamilton in 1791 over the meaning to be given to the words contained in the Constitution continues more than 200 hundred years later.

Founders kept the language vague on purpose

Some scholars argue that the drafters of the Constitution purposely left the language of the document imprecise in some instances so that it could be interpreted by future generations living in a world that would be much different than that of the 18th century. These so-called "loose constructionists" believe that looking at the meaning of the words in the context of society as it exists today.

Someone who believes in a strict construction of the Constitution would read and interpret the words as they were written in 1787. The words would be given their 18th century definition.

Expanding strict construction to legislation

Strict construction is not limited only to the Constitution. The role of state and federal judges is to interpret and apply the law, and some states have rules directing judges to avoid strict construction of the laws.

Other states leave it up to the discretion of each judge to determine the meaning to give to the language of a statute. Some judges adhere to the principle that if the language of a specific statute is clear and is not ambiguous then no interpretation is needed. Judges can also interpret the language of legislation by applying common meanings as might be applied to the words by an average person.

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