Supreme Court Justices: Their Business is Our Business


Perhaps you are confused about all of the media attention lately regarding the confirmation of John Roberts to replace the late William Rehnquist as chief justice of the Supreme Court and the nomination of Harriet Miers to replace Sandra Day O’Connor as an associate justice.

It’s a big deal because President Bush has the opportunity to appoint people who likely will stay at their posts long after he is no longer president–perhaps for 20 years or more. Supreme Court justices tend to be a president’s longest-lasting legacy.

You may also have heard the phrase “strict constructionist” as opposed to someone who “legislates from the bench.” Conservatives want the former, and liberals, though they are embarrassed to ‘fess up, usually seek the latter.

“Legislating from the bench” means that a justice believes the Constitution should be interpreted in the light of changes in contemporary society. This may result in the creation of new laws that have little or no connection to the original Constitution, its duly ratified amendments, or the string of later decisions based on them (what is called “precedent”).

By contrast, a “strict constructionist” seeks to interpret the Constitution according to the way its original framers intended it to be understood. “Strict constructionists” believe that any updating of the Constitution to align it more closely to the “changes in contemporary society” must be done through the amendment process as spelled out in the Constitution itself.

They would interpret the amendments in the same way–according to “original intent”–and as much as possible would maintain a continuity with the reasoning that threads through the 200-plus years of cases associated with each issue that confronts them. But how do the justices determine “original intent”?

The first step is a careful study of the Constitution itself. Each line of the original document must be analyzed in its internal context, that is, according to how it relates to all of the words and phrases that come before and after it within the document (hence, ‘internal’).

The immediate context is most important, but the wider context also plays a role. What words are used in a particular clause, and how are they related grammatically and conceptually to the others words around them? Do these same words occur elsewhere in the document? How are they used there?

A second step would be to research other documents written by or accessible to the framers of the Constitution. Here is where The Federalist Papers become important, for this series of essays were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay to explain the Constitution and persuade the citizens to support its ratification. Other writings are studied as well, including the works of John Locke and Edmund Burke, among others. These form the external context for understanding the Constitution.

If a clause of the Constitution or its amendment is subject to two or more interpretations, the justices of the Supreme Court have the duty to determine what it actually means. Their written opinions often describe in detail their reasoning leading to the conclusions they reached.

If you are a student of the Bible, you can readily see the parallels between the work these justices perform and the work all of us have to do to interpret the Scriptures. We are faced with similar choices. Will we be “strict constructionists,” seeking to understand the “original intent” of the biblical writers, who speak for the divine Author? Or will we “legislate,” rewriting the text to suit our whims?

Determining “original intent” of a Bible passage involves a great deal of the same kind of work. We look at the internal context, attempting a grammatical and conceptual analysis. We look at how the word or phrase is used wherever it occurs in Holy Scripture. Then we turn to the “external context” of ancient extra-biblical literature, history, and culture.

The result of all of this work is an increased level of confidence in our understanding. The more we study, listen, and learn, the more confident we can be that we are understanding a passage correctly. Of course, you may be confident without such study, but is your confidence worth anything?

It should go without saying that gaining such understanding and such confidence is not the goal, for we are not Gnostics. Our purpose is relationship–with the Lord and with each other–resulting in life-transformation. We learn that we may submit. We submit that God may change us and then use us for His mission in this world. Such transformation cannot happen if we “legislate.” The power of the Bible comes from its Source, and anyone perverting its message thereby cuts off that power.


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