What is Strict Construction?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Strict construction is a very narrow interpretation of statute, in contrast with more flexible judicial readings on the law that allow judges to set precedents or create exceptions. Advocates for strict construction tend to come from a conservative standpoint and are concerned that judges overreach their legal authority in some cases. In strict construction, people can only look at the law as written to reach a decision, and may not enlarge on statutes to accomplish a given judicial goal.

Advocates of strict construction argue against the judge's ability to set precedents and make exceptions to the law.
Advocates of strict construction argue against the judge's ability to set precedents and make exceptions to the law.

This concept is especially widespread in the United States where some conservatives feel the judiciary steps beyond the boundaries of legal texts. While judges have the legal authority to consider extenuating circumstances in a case, look at similar statutes, and draw upon case law to reach a decision in a legal matter, strict construction frowns upon this. If a statute has a clear meaning, the judge must apply it as written; if, for example, an activity is barred by law, the judge cannot soften the sentence because someone had a sound reason to engage in that activity.

Under this principle, the judiciary has the task of enforcing the law, while the legislative branch is charged with creating new laws, clearing up confusions, and addressing shortcomings in the legal code. People who advocate for strict construction in legal interpretation do not want judges to create a body of case law they can draw upon when deliberating on legal matters and attempting to reach fair verdicts.

Limited judicial interpretation has its drawbacks. Some laws are not clear or do not address unique situations, and it can be difficult to determine the intent of the people who crafted the law, especially in the case of people like the people who drafted the U.S. Constitution. Their writings can provide some information, but often not enough to help judges in applying Constitutional law. Judges can also face situations the law has not yet imagined, and may not have any existing law, plain or not, to draw upon for the purpose of reaching a decision and generating an appropriate sentence.

Strict construction, despite being about plain reading, can also involve tangled legal snarls of debate over what is meant by specific words and phrases in the law. In the First Amendment to the Constitution, for example, the line “Congress shall make no law” appears. This could be interpreted literally as an injunction on passing any laws, ever, although it is more commonly interpreted to refer to laws restricting freedom of speech and religion.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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