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Posted at 12:53 PM ET, 01/ 5/2011

Americans split on how to interpret Constitution

By Jon Cohen

There is a set text to the U.S. Constitution, but the public splits about evenly on whether the country's courts should stick narrowly to its original meaning when deciding law.

Exactly half of Americans say the Supreme Court should base its rulings on the framers' original intent, but nearly as many -- 46 percent -- say the justices should instead rule on what the Constitution "means in current times."

The data, from an October Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll, also show a sharp partisan gap on the question: nearly three-quarters of Republicans said original intent should prevail, while Democrats took the modern times side by nearly 2 to 1. Among independents, 53 percent said the court should narrowly interpret the Constitution; 43 percent said it should use an updated understanding of the document.

Nearly six in 10 of those age 18 to 29 said the Court should seek a modern understanding of the Constitution, with those 65 and older as apt to side with a stricter reading.

Q: Do you think the U.S. Supreme Court should base its rulings on its understanding of what the U.S. Constitution meant as it was originally written, or should the court base its rulings on its understanding of what the U.S. Constitution means in current times?

                  As originally   What it means
                     written      current times
All adults             50             46

Democrats             34               62
Republicans          72               26
Independents        53               43

Age 18-29             39               58     
Age 30-49             48               49
Age 50-64             54               42
Age 65+                63               29

By Jon Cohen  | January 5, 2011; 12:53 PM ET
Categories:  Post Polls  | Tags:  Boehner, Polls, Supreme Court  
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Comments

What a revelation! Until recently, all Americans agreed on how to interpret the Constitution, right? All Supreme Court rulings had been unanimous. In fact, why did we even need a Supreme Court for the first 200 years since everybody agreed.

Posted by: Lefty_ | January 5, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

The Civil War has never ended. Actually, the Federalist debate never ended. We are a divided nation and violent conflict does not seem far off.

Posted by: anarcho-liberal-tarian | January 5, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

If the framers wanted us to include their original intent, they would have made an intent document part of the Constitution, and not set up the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution on an on-going basis. They were used to English Common Law, and they intended to create a more formalized version of that. Of course I willing to bet the large majority of Americans confuse interpreting original intent with a literal interpretation of the words as written. Since the framers argued at length over every word, trying to determine their intent at this date is clearly a fools errand, and is invalid besides. The framers had different intents, and hopes for how the words would be interpreted.

In any case, why do so many people want to be slaves to a group ignorant, racist and sexist men if judged by modern standards? They were amazing men for their time, but times have changed.

Posted by: Muddy_Buddy_2000 | January 5, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

If the Constitution had not already been violated many times, there would not be this large a division of opinion.

Posted by: MRGB | January 5, 2011 1:25 PM | Report abuse

If the Constitution had not already been violated many times, there would not be this large a division of opinion.

Posted by: MRGB | January 5, 2011 1:26 PM | Report abuse

And neither view is wrong. They are just different.

Posted by: jeadpt | January 5, 2011 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I often channel my ancestors from the 18th century to make important decisions.

Principles can be handed down, thought needs to be learned and applied anew based on current conditions. That's called adaptation and is the key to survival.

Posted by: vmax02rider | January 5, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

This is frightening. I cannot believe that 46% of those polled want the Constitution distorted to read as they would like it. These ignorant clodhoppers ought to be forced out of the country, to Russia or Burma or China, where those government's don't pay any attention to their Constitutions, either.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | January 5, 2011 1:46 PM | Report abuse

anarcho-liberal-tarian wrote: "Civil War has never ended. Actually, the Federalist debate never ended. We are a divided nation and violent conflict does not seem far off."

Unfortunately, I think you're correct. The tension in this country keeps building and building, and people are becoming more entrenched in their respective beliefs, not less. If this growing tension keeps building, I think violence may be an eventual conclusion. Thousands of years of history have shown this to be true.

Posted by: liberalsareblind | January 5, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

The Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll question is fatally flawed and biased from the outset, because one of the choices it sets for people to make it to side with "what the U.S. Constitution meant as it was originally written."

There was never any one agreed meaning. The Constitution wasn't written by one person, it was a committee of people. And, they argued heatedly over the very words they were using.

By presenting the choice to poll takers of "what the U.S. Constitution meant as it was originally written", implies that there ever existed such a thing as "what the U.S. Constitution meant as it was originally written."

There wasn't. The Constitution was ratified into force in 1790. It took only 2 years, in 1792, before the U.S. Supreme Court first entertained a question of interpretation of the document.

Question: why so soon after ratification would a question of interpretation come up if the original intent was clear?

Answer: because there never was any such thing as "what the U.S. Constitution meant as it was originally written."

Posted by: Len_RI1 | January 5, 2011 1:51 PM | Report abuse

The original intent was to create a framework within which the government would operate, the individual's rights would be preserved, and the union would be prosperous and long lasting. It amuses when people talk today of adhering to the "original intent" of the Constitution and the founding fathers. And they know this how?

Posted by: vmi98mom | January 5, 2011 1:52 PM | Report abuse

"This is frightening. I cannot believe that 46% of those polled want the Constitution distorted to read as they would like it. These ignorant clodhoppers ought to be forced out of the country, to Russia or Burma or China, where those government's don't pay any attention to their Constitutions, either." Posted by: mibrooks27

You first. My ancestors came on the Mayflower and my 12th great uncle Sam Adams participated in the Boston Tea Party. If you are too stupid to understand that there is no such things as "original intent," then please leave or, at the very least, don't vote. It is actually the "original intent" folks who want the Constitution to "read as they would like it." That's why they've introduced over 400 proposed amendments. The problem is not with the Constitution, but rather with the fact that Laws are written so broadly the Courts are put in the poistion of interpreting them. Instead of all this Constitution crap, call your Congressman and tell him to make sure the Laws are written more narrowly.

And for all of you who aren't aware, every final Bill that comes to the floor of the House to be voted on to become Law cites the Constitutional authority under which the Bill falls. Soooo all this kabuki theater over the Constitution is just more of the same smoke and mirrors to hide the fact the right has no ideas and is the party of, by, and for their corporate masters.

Posted by: vmi98mom | January 5, 2011 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Why the bickering? The constitution means whatever five justices decides it means. Suck it up and live with it.

Posted by: jackburris1 | January 5, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein of WaPo recently spit on the Constitution on MSNBC, afterall it was written over 100 years ago and no one understands it.

Our greatest danger is to ignore the "Bill of Rights" and let government ignore our basic freedoms. This is why we must repeal the Patriot Act.

Posted by: alance | January 5, 2011 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Vmi98mom wrote: ""This is frightening. I cannot believe that 46% of those polled want the Constitution distorted to read as they would like it. These ignorant clodhoppers ought to be forced out of the country, to Russia or Burma or China, where those government's don't pay any attention to their Constitutions, either." Posted by: mibrooks27

You first. My ancestors came on the Mayflower and my 12th great uncle Sam Adams participated in the Boston Tea Party. If you are too stupid to understand that there is no such things as "original intent," then please leave or, at the very least, don't vote. It is actually the "original intent" folks who want the Constitution to "read as they would like it." That's why they've introduced over 400 proposed amendments. The problem is not with the Constitution, but rather with the fact that Laws are written so broadly the Courts are put in the poistion of interpreting them. Instead of all this Constitution crap, call your Congressman and tell him to make sure the Laws are written more narrowly.

And for all of you who aren't aware, every final Bill that comes to the floor of the House to be voted on to become Law cites the Constitutional authority under which the Bill falls. Soooo all this kabuki theater over the Constitution is just more of the same smoke and mirrors to hide the fact the right has no ideas and is the party of, by, and for their corporate masters."

________________________________________________________

There is "no such thing as original intent? Really? I lived in England for a while. Did you know that in England, Parliament, and their justice system still try to interpret the original intent of the Magna Carta when deciding matters of the law? The Magna Carta was written in 1215, and the English are still trying to interpret what the original writers meant! Only the English have been dealing with "original intent" much longer than we have. Lawmakers and judges regularly try to interpret the original intent of certain documents around the world.

Posted by: liberalsareblind | January 5, 2011 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Luckily for us, the founders left a wealth of documentation that allows us to look into their thinking about the Constitution's various clauses, phrases, and their intent. Republicans seem to favor the "literal" or founder's intent because they see government's role differently than Democrats. Democrats see government's role as all encompassing, and need the broad interpretation to justify the intrusive reach of government.
While this is not news, it is interesting to see the split.

Posted by: bcullum1952 | January 5, 2011 2:38 PM | Report abuse

The "Founders" did not drive cars, fly in airplanes, ride trains, use a computer, a credit card, or a ball-point pen. They never heard of petroleum, electric light, natural gas, factory-produced foods, or polyester.
Our Constitution was not written by men who thought they held the "Wisdom of the Ages"; these very liberal gentlemen had a very difficult time agreeing among their own contemporaries. Their wisdom is found in the latitude they left in the document for interpretation, to keep the sense of our system in place, in light of changing times and circumstances. They did not "dot every 'i', and cross every 't'", leaving that detail up to the Congress to manage via legislation.
Since our Constitution was ratified, there have been 27 Amendments (including the first 10 which also were not part of the basic document); each of them deal with a fundamental issue not anticipated by the Founders in Philadelphia, but allowed for by their definition of the amendment process. There have also been thousands of federal statutes passed, nearly all of which have survived Constitutional challenges where questioned.
I think that the Congress needs the latitude to interpret INTENT, in order to legislate for our nation in today's era. Our grandparents may have been wise, but they did not live THEIR grandparents' lives, and neither should we.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | January 5, 2011 2:49 PM | Report abuse

I just find it amazing that those who want strict construction interpretation, feel they know what those guys in the late 1700's were thinking. Arrogance. Haven't done much reading about the Founders lately, have you? Institutions change through what is right (slavery, womens rights, etc.), and so too should the Constitution grow with those changes. Even if the SCOTUS found that corporations, unions, etc. have the same rights as individuals. I don't recall call seeing the word "corporation" in the Constitution.

Posted by: jckdoors | January 5, 2011 2:53 PM | Report abuse

How about asking these questions:

Should judges appointed by modern politicians be able to add or take away Constitutional rights based on modern factors?

Should a Congress consisting of modern politicians have unlimited power to do whatever Congress thinks is best for the country based on modern factors as long as five judges don't stop them?

Should a modern politician elected President have unlimited power to do whatever the President thinks is best for the country based on modern factors as long as five judges don't stop him?

Current judges, Congress and the President are all in a better position than our country's Founders to make decisions based on "modern times."

If modern times is the standard to judge the Constitution, the values of modern politicians win over values of the Founders.

The reason we have a Constitution is to place limits on the ability of current politicians to impose their values on the people.

I personally will live with Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington's judgments superceding my own personal judgments on matters addressed by the Constitution they wrote. I'm not willing to say the same about modern politicians, if they prefer to substitute their interpretation of the Constitution for the Founders' interpretation of what they wrote.

Lawyers have a saying: I'll let you write the contract, if you let me write the definitions of the words in the contract. Sound pretty slimy. Right?

This goes to the heart of why we have a Constitution in the first place. The Constitution embodies the consent of the governed. We the people approved that Constitution based on what the Founders told us their intent was. The Founders passed that consent of the governed through generations of politicians to those who hold office today.

If modern politicians stay within the limit of that Constitution's consent of the governed without changing its meaning except by the amemdment process specified in the Constitution, then modern politicians have the same consent of the governed that Washington had when he took office.

Staying within the consent of the governed allows a particular modern politician, whose personal accomplishments may not deserve the same respect Washington earned, to exercise Washington's authority. If, however, modern politicians don't feel contrained by the consent of the governed passed to them by the Founders, then we, the governed, are free to decide our own course of action.

Each of us deciding our own course of action inevitably leads to revolution, bloodshed and anarchy. Having a touchstone of rules that preserve the consent of the governed pased down through the generations is the only way to avoid these problems.

Those who throw out the original intent of the Constitution, because of modern considerations are playing with a fire that may engulf us all.

We did that once before in 1860's.
Let's not do it again.

Posted by: jfv123 | January 5, 2011 2:55 PM | Report abuse

mibrooks27
doesn't even know what the federalist papers are.
yet he talks about "original intent"

shesh.. such ignorance is just plain scary!

Posted by: newagent99 | January 5, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse

This poll correlates with the old adage, “with age comes wisdom”.

Posted by: AForgottenMan | January 5, 2011 3:03 PM | Report abuse

liberalsareblind_ First off all... my relatives were already here when you freeloaders from England arrived. (Go home!)

newagent99 - Ignorant leftist hick. Any educated person knows about Hamilton and the Federalist papers. What you wits bandying them about fail to mention is that Hamilton and his goofballs were defeated every time they attempted to run for office on the policies spelled out in the Federalist Papers. Your "Federalist Papers" have about as much historical significance as used toilet paper.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | January 5, 2011 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The lame stream media just loves to muddy the waters. There is no split and no dissension about how to interpret The United States Constitution. It has been a workable and viable document that has served us well until the last couple of years. Suddenly it's all so confusing and 'open to various interpretations'? Oh, please; put a sock in it. What we don't understand is why American males are never provided equal protection under the law. That is the best question yet.

Posted by: techresmgt | January 5, 2011 3:15 PM | Report abuse

The Constitution was intentionally vague so that we could adapt the document as the country evolved, hence the 27 amendments. We don't live in 1787 and you can't expect the Supreme Court to adopt the mindset of people who have been dead for 200 over years to determine their intent.

Posted by: ozpunk | January 5, 2011 3:17 PM | Report abuse

The Constitution was clear an consise not to be misrepresented as the Obama an Pelosi tried an failed miserable. I just took the test an scored 91 percent not bad for my age. I am a baby boomer that the Government cannot dumb down, they hate us with a vengance because we do know our Bill of Rights, what is truth an what is false that the Government is doing now to all of us!

Posted by: JWTX | January 5, 2011 3:30 PM | Report abuse

ozpunk - ...more half baked ignorance being paraded around as "knowledge". First, Amendment 1 through 10 are the Bill Of Rights. They were written *into* the Constitution and published at the same time. They only reason they are "amendments" is because of the objections of Hamilton and his crew to a Bill Of Rights at all. Then, you have "amendments" 13, 14, and 15 which are not amendments at all. These were proposed by the Radical Reconstructionists after the Civil War and were never approved by the majority of states. The entire south and most western states rejected the 14th Amendment and the Radicals simply refused to accept the votes of the state legislatures, appointed military rulers over those states, dissolved the right of anyone registered with an opposition party the right to vote (and also stripped them of their citizenship) and those military rulers merely accepted that Congress had the power to impose a Constitutional Amendment. That Amendment NEVER was approved by a majority of states, much less the necessary 2/3 majority. In fact, both New Jersey and Ohio repudiated it and *most* legal scholars think that Congress, by a simple majority vote, today could render all three of those bogus amendments null and void.

Posted by: mibrooks27 | January 5, 2011 3:33 PM | Report abuse

The Constitution as it was originally written, without Amendments obviously was not complete, based on the Amendments alone. The Constitution is a Dead document if it is not interpreted in it's current context of the times. Even our framers understood the importance "of the time." All living documents realize the importance "of the time" and remain relevant, while documents unavailable to interpretation become dead quickly.

We depend on our three branches of government to each "do their job" as each is a check and balance of the other, which is why in these times of politicized government, we are at a crossroads in Democracy, as these times were not expected, as we are considered an intelligent people and therefore would not find ourselves in a deadlock, which we have found ourselves, indicating our lack of intelligence. What more needs to be known.

Dialog starts with a sincere desire for change, which must come from within the individuals engaged in the dialog and nowhere else. Our Politicians need to learn the concept of dialog and embrace that concept for our sake, or we all are doomed to suffer from a spirit of ignorance.

Posted by: patmatthews | January 5, 2011 3:43 PM | Report abuse

The people ratified the Constitution as it was written, with the understanding that the Constitution could be amended as needed in the future. Thus it was ratified as a dead document. The only life a document has is the life it gets from the people who agree to amend it. Pretending that five unelected people can amend it is wrong.

Posted by: d_kosloff | January 6, 2011 6:28 PM | Report abuse

Mibrooks27 wrote:
Then, you have "amendments" 13, 14, and 15 which are not amendments at all. These were proposed by the Radical Reconstructionists after the Civil War and were never approved by the majority of states. . . . That Amendment NEVER was approved by a majority of states, much less the necessary 2/3 majority. In fact, both New Jersey and Ohio repudiated it and *most* legal scholars think that Congress, by a simple majority vote, today could render all three of those bogus amendments null and void.

My comment:
Most legal scholars? Name ONE. You are actually saying with a straight face that the U.S. could reimpose slavery, deny the right to vote based on race and so forth on a simple vote? That's just wrongheaded on so many levels.

Further, let's assume for one minute that your claim that it was not ratified had some basis in fact. That would not be a question for the legislature, that would be a question for the Courts.

The only way that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments go away is if they are repealed. And that has NO chance of happening as they protect fundamental liberties.

Posted by: dcraven925 | January 7, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

What a brilliant writing our U.S Constitution! Okay, Integrity,these United States have natural laws that are to be nurtured. The U.S.Constitution has specific elements that when properly nurtured it functions at its strongest and healthiest. One can not add or take away any element(s) that are required for the U.S.Constitution to function at it's strongest and healthiest.It must function in a healthy naturally nurturing way. Spirit. Each person gets out of the U.S.Constitution what the individual puts into it. You'd best interpret the U.S. Constitution with Integrity.(or things will heat up)

Lock, Adams,Franklin & ...all brilliant Men and they knew it. Some gave all and all gave some.

The U.S.Constitution, is, just as
_ _ _ is (I'll have you fill in the blank there). Therefore you'd best know what the natural laws and nurturing of (behavior)is. If somehow you need understanding, seek it. Get the history of where the writings that produce a strong & healthy constitution came from.

If somehow you cannot interpret the U.S.Constitution with Integrity after you have read the writings the United States Constitution comes from then you will be in the group that can say,
"I don't understand".

Posted by: NoraSuz | January 9, 2011 3:10 AM | Report abuse

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