Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date




Interpretation is the means by which the Constitution and its clauses are brought to bear on actual cases and controversies. Although much of the Constitution appears self-explanatory, as with its requirement that the president be at least thirty-five years old, much is subject to reasonable disagreement. The approaches to interpretation that form this chapter’s subject are the main tools scholars and judges have developed to resolve that disagreement. Those tools encompass five domains of argumentation, broadly conceived: text, history, structure, precedent, and consequences. As a general matter, interpretation that draws on resources wholly outside these five domains — via an appeal to scripture, for example, or by lot — is not recognizable as American constitutional argument. Still, each domain may be so liberally construed as to create a broad universe of interpretive possibility. Indeed the universe is so broad, and the associated adjudicative outcomes so diverse, that constitutional conflict in the United States is almost exclusively channeled into the discourse of interpretation rather than formal constitutional change.


Administrative Law | Constitutional Law | Law