What is Strict Constructionalism?

Sherry Holetzky

Strict constructionalism is the term used to describe a literal or strict reading of the United States Constitution. The other side of the coin is typically termed judicial activism. Strict constructionalism simply means that nothing should be read into the Constitution that isn’t clearly already there, such as special rights for one segment of the population. A broad interpretation instead of a strict reading often leads to creating new rights or to rewriting policy.

A literal, non-interpretive reading of the U.S. Constitution is known as strict constructionalism.
A literal, non-interpretive reading of the U.S. Constitution is known as strict constructionalism.

In fact, the Framers wrote the Constitution to limit the power of the Federal government. They believed that certain rights were inalienable, inherent, and therefore should never be violated by the government. In other words, the Constitution was not written to give rights, but to protect them from infringement. All powers not granted to the federal government were to lie with the several states and therefore with the people.

Most justices agree that the Constitution was written so that modern-day justices can still apply its precepts to changing laws, attitudes, and conditions.
Most justices agree that the Constitution was written so that modern-day justices can still apply its precepts to changing laws, attitudes, and conditions.

Strict constructionalism is a judicial philosophy that adheres to the Constitution as written, rather than interpreting it to keep up with the times. Where the Document is unclear, strict constructionalism attempts to ascertain the Framers’ intent through letters and other documents from the time of the Constitution’s creation.

The document is to be read and upheld according to the common understanding of its language, as the wording was used at the time of its creation. Strict constructionalism does not allow for a loose reading of the Constitution or for adaptation that does not fit with the Framers’ intent. Strict constructionalism protects states' rights and conforms to the principle that the Constitution must be amended rather than broadly interpreted, in order to address those issues that are not covered in word or by intent.

To bend from this principal is to lessen the strength of the Constitution. When the judiciary steps outside Constitutional parameters, where does it stop? If certain issues that are clearly not addressed in the Constitution can be “read into it,” then before long any issue can find protection under it.

When the highest courts lean one way politically, judicial activism might seem like a good thing to those who agree with the judges and justices making decisions. However, as new justices with different values are appointed, they aren't as likely to be comfortable with loose interpretations.

Strict constructionalism is often described as a right leaning trait, but it isn’t about party affiliation; it’s about strictly following the Constitution rather than allowing either party to determine the law of the land based on their own ideology.

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Discussion Comments


@David09 - It’s interesting that the article points out that the opposite of strict constructionalism is judicial activism. That’s a curious characterization.

Who really wants to support judicial activism? If that is the only alternative, it’s more flawed than strict constructionalism, because it is susceptible to the political philosophies of the justices.


@rugbygirl - I disagree. You state that the right to privacy exists in the Constitution, despite the fact that it was not clearly enumerated.

If that is the case, do you think that’s because the Framers did not understand privacy, or that privacy did not exist in those days? It’s not enumerated because it’s self-evident.

What’s not self-evident is the right to an abortion, which has been invoked under the right to privacy. Some people argue that abortion violates the right to life, which is enumerated in the Constitution.

That’s what has made “privacy” the buzz word among those who oppose strict constructionalism.

Privacy has become a catch-all concept to include not only rights not enumerated in the Constitution, but rights that violate the spirit of the Constitution itself.

That is the issue in my opinion. It’s the spirit of the law, not the letter.


@rugbygirl - It's interesting that you mentioned library records; the Patriot Act has caused a lot of discussion in the library community.

What a lot of libraries do is they simply do not keep records of what a patron has checked out. This can be inconvenient for patrons, who sometimes want to know what books they've read in the past.

But it protects those records from subpoena. We can't hand over records that do not exist.

You might be right that strict constructionists are missing the founders' points, but I feel that only strict construction prevents a "make it up as we go along" government. That said, there's no reason to fetishize the original Constitution. If we think we need more rights, we can amend the Constitution.


The problem with a strict constructionist outlook is that it's not necessarily what the founders intended! When the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, an objection raised was that by enumerating *some* rights, people might come to think that those were the *only* rights that needed to be protected.

The founders intended for Americans to have a broad range of rights. In fact, they expected that virtually any right not specifically taken away by the Constitution should be protected.

So maybe the Constitution doesn't specifically guarantee a right to privacy. But think about the context in which it was written. The founders wanted to make sure that the abused perpetrated against the colonists by the crown could never be repeated. So they enumerated the abuses they were most concerned with. Does anyone really believe that Thomas Jefferson or George Washington would think the government had a right to say who you could love, or to read your library record?

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