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Navigating the Labyrinth: The Art and Science of Interpreting Constitutions


The construction of constitutions is a complex and delicate task that requires a delicate balance between preserving the original intent of the framers and adapting to the evolving needs of society. The method of interpretation plays a pivotal role in this process, as highlighted in the insightful text provided.

The Liberal Lens

The text emphasizes the need to interpret constitutions liberally, steering away from narrow or technical principles. The overarching goal is to ensure that the constitution achieves its intended objectives and upholds the fundamental principles of governance. Judge Cooley's assertion that a constitution is a "chart upon which every man, learned or unlearned, may be able to trace the leading principles of government" underscores the inclusive nature of constitutional interpretation.

The People's Charter

A crucial point emerges regarding the origins of constitutions – they are framed by the people for themselves. As such, the constitution should be construed liberally for the benefit of the people. The focus is on understanding and realizing the broader principles of government rather than getting bogged down in technicalities. The text argues against a strict construction, reminding us that governments exist for the people's benefit, and any interpretation should align with the people's interests.

Striking a Balance

While advocating for a liberal interpretation, we must acknowledge the necessity of balance. It cautions against stretching the constitution beyond its fair sense but encourages a construction that best aligns with the document's design, objects, and general structure. This approach, rooted in common sense, recognizes that rulers and the people share a common interest in maintaining a free government.

Federal vs. State Constitutions

A crucial distinction surfaces in the text regarding the strictness or liberality of construction between state and federal constitutions. While state constitutions are to be liberally construed, the federal constitution, especially in delegating powers, should receive a reasonable and fair construction without deviating from its plain meaning.

Intent of the People

A cardinal rule emerges – constitutions must be construed to give effect to the intention of the people who adopted them. The text asserts that the intention is sought within the constitution itself, relying on the apparent meaning of the words employed. However, it allows for construction when the words are ambiguous, absurd, or contradictory, emphasizing the importance of aligning with the overall purpose of the constitution.

Stare Decisis in Constitutional Construction

The principle of stare decisis holds special significance in constitutional interpretation. Once a court has deliberately interpreted a constitutional provision, there should be a reluctance to depart from that interpretation without grave reasons. This approach ensures stability and certainty, especially in matters involving contracts, vested interests, innocent parties, or rules of property.


Interpreting constitutions is both an art and a science. It requires a judicious blend of liberalism, respect for the people's intent, and a commitment to stability. As societies evolve, so must the interpretation of their foundational documents, and the careful application of these principles ensures the enduring strength of constitutional governance. The delicate dance between the past and the present is essential for navigating the labyrinth of constitutional construction.

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