The Constitution of the United States is “dead, dead, dead.” Yet, our views on how government should interact in our lives — with the economy, with social issues — all rely on this founding document. The Constitution was ratified in 1787 and the Founding Fathers gave original meaning to each article and amendment, and now it is dead. It is the job of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution using the meaning it was given by the Founding Fathers.
Marbury vs. Madison set the precedent for the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution. As a result, whoever controls the majority of justices on the Supreme Court controls the governing constitutional interpretation and the ideological backbone of the U.S. Originalism is the only interpretation that protects and promotes democracy, freedom and a stable political system. It is a judicial interpretation that aims to closely follow the original meaning of those who drafted it. When we support the opposite interpretation, that the Constitution is a living and breathing document, intended to adapt immediately to the latest societal changes, we start to stray from the original meaning. Treating it in this way slowly begins to undermine democracy and the foundation of our country set up by the Founding Fathers. By promoting a living and breathing governing document, we leave interpretations of the Constitution up to the whims of modern-day adjudicators and risk our country becoming transient and fickle. We have to respect the original ideas of the Founding Fathers. With too many changes to constitutional interpretation on a case-by-case basis, we erode judicial legitimacy.
In contrast, the Declaration of Independence is not a governing document. It had a practical purpose and it had elements of forward thinking. Because this document does not govern, it should be seen as alive. It served as a call to rebellion when it was written and today it serves as a living document. Thomas Jefferson himself applied forward thought when he wrote that “all men are created equal.” However, one of Jefferson’s greatest fears was that the young nation would not survive. A loose and subjective interpretation of the Constitution directly threatens the legitimacy and survival of a nation. It becomes a threat to the country when a judge, sitting in an unelected position, tries to attach their personal, modern-day opinion to a 245-year-old governing document.
By engaging in the text of the Constitution and seeking original meaning, we gain insight into the minds of the men that structured this country. For example, the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights does not allow for gun rights to be restricted and the Eighth Amendment does not mean the death penalty is unconstitutional. People were executed for petty theft in the 1700s. The Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” was written to stop people from being tarred and feathered or burnt at the stake. If we look at the context in which the Constitution was written and who is writing the document, we can begin to understand what an amendment or article means and how it should be applied.
Instead of leaving interpretations that were not clearly outlined by the Founding Fathers up to nine unelected justices, there exists an option brilliantly included in the Constitution. We have a way to amend and add or subtract from our constitutional rights. It was not meant to be an easy process. If core principles and beliefs could change so quickly, our country would become transient and leave behind founding ideals. Yet it is not something that is impossible; we have 27 constitutional amendments. If, as a country, we reach the point at which we want to outlaw the death penalty or restrict gun rights, then this can be done.
Our country must adapt and change with the times and the way that our governing document can do this is through the amendment process. The danger lies in allowing a justice to interpret the Constitution in a way that does not follow the original meaning. An activist judge drives us away from fundamental principles. If we abandon the meaning which Jefferson, Madison and their peers attached to our founding documents, our democracy will not survive and our principles become meaningless.