Why isn’t the Constitution more clear?



More than a few of the people I know have peculiar notions about the U.S. Constitution. Some of them like to think that our national charter simply means what it meant when its authors wrote it — and that’s all there is to it.

Ah, if only life were that simple… But, of course, it isn’t.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a vast industry devoted to interpreting the Constitution. It consists of lawyers, judges and such whose jobs are involved in parsing the words of this most fundamental of our ruling documents.

In some respects, the Constitution doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Interpretations of it have changed — sometimes even radically — over the years and decades.

In my own lifetime, various landmark court rulings — each of them based at least in part on readings of the Constitution — have profoundly  changed life in America. And most of those rulings seem safe from repeal or further reinterpretation, mainly because the public generally has accepted them. Those no great push afoot to outlaw gay marriage or to force black voters to pay a poll tax.

Trying to figure out what the Constitution actually means is a very tricky business. As often as not, lawyers, judges and courts disagree among one another. When the Supreme Court presumably settles an issue with a ruling that becomes law, there often are justices who dissent from the decision.

This long record of changes in judicial interpretations of our national charter has led to widespread references to the Constitution as a “living” document. That term doesn’t sit well with some conservatives, but history shows that it’s perfectly valid.

Thomas Jefferson put it well when he said the framers of the Constitution intentionally wrote various ambiguities into the document. They recognized that social and political conditions would change over time and that a little wiggle room — within certain fundamental limits — was required.

Jefferson said:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.


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