Richard Levy, Constitutional Law Professor at Kansas University School of Law, presented “How Should We Interpret the Constitution” at the March 7, 2023, League of Women Voters Topeka-Shawnee County Tuesday Topics. We’ve included highlights of the presentation below. The library is a partner with the League of Women Voters in sharing nonpartisan civic information.
Introducing the U.S. Constitution
The United States Constitution was written in 1789. It is unique among constitutions in that it is short and durable. The Constitution has only seven articles plus amendments that have been added over the years. The Constitution was meant to be adaptable and adjusted over time.
The Constitution was written in broad, general language and needs interpretation. Methodology matters when interpreting the Constitution. For instance, what is meant by the word “liberty” and what is included if a right to privacy is a fundamental liberty? Topics like abortion, same-sex marriage, due process and equal protection under the law are impacted by how one answers those questions. Society’s understanding of values evolves over time. Courts must give meaning to Constitutional provisions.
How should we interpret the constitution?
Two methodologies for interpreting the Constitution are Conceptual Evolution v. Originalism. The focus of Conceptual Evolution is the underlying values. Judges using Conceptual Evolution look at core values and study historical documents, the Federalist papers, and practices of earlier court decisions as evidence of meaning. This is a more liberal methodology than Originalism, which focuses on what the framers said and the search for understanding of their words. This is a conservative view.
- What was the original intent when the Constitution was written?
- What was the public meaning?
- What did people in 1789 think the words meant?
Judges are not historians. They are human beings who, like all humans, find it hard to put aside their own biases, previous views and assumptions.
The methods used to explain the Constitution result in concrete outcomes. In recent years, the Court has become increasingly more political. This in turn makes the President and the Senate aware of more opportunities to affect the Court. It is a vicious circle. Levy worries that as politics becomes more polarized there will be shopping for judges, filing numerous cases in hopes of getting a favorable judge. He said public support of the Supreme Court is crucial, because we need the Court to make important pronouncements.
Upcoming Tuesday Topics
A presenter from Topeka NAMI will speak about mental health issues at the Tue, May 2 Tuesday Topics. You may attend in person at the library or by Zoom. Find the Zoom link and more information on the library’s calendar. Email email@example.com with any questions.