Understanding the Justice System

The most confusing aspect in evaluating Supreme Court Justices surrounds the vocabulary used to describe them. If a Justice is labeled "liberal" they are most often associated with the Democratic Party and conversely "conservative" Justices are lopped in with the Republicans. This is not necessarily the case as the terms "liberal" and "conservative" refer to interpretation of the Constitution rather than political affiliation. "Liberal", "broad" or "loose" interpretation of the Constitution supports a policy of construing the text broadly to allow for greater and more flexible federal government power. "Conservative", "strict", "originalist" or "textualist" interpretation supports a policy of little interpretation at all; thus relying on the original meaning of the words in the Constitution rather than guessing at the "framer’s intent". The concept of "framer’s intent" attempts to determine the hidden meaning of the Constitution beyond the corners of the document and considers outside collateral sources. Neither of these definitions hint at a political affiliation and both political parties have supported either interpretation when it was convenient to their agenda.

For example the Second Amendment reads "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." A "conservative" interpretation discourages government involvement and relies solely upon the words as they are written (thus the synonym "textualist" or "originalist"); therefore the "right to keep and bear Arms" simply means that American citizens have the undisputed right to own and use 'Arms' (firearms) for individual protection and recreational use without restriction.

A "liberal" view of that same passage produces dramatically different results. "Framer’s intent" supposes the Constitution to be a living document that is open to be reinterpretation in order to meet the needs of an evolving American society. Thus, the "loose" interpretation of the passage holds that citizens were only meant to bear arms so they could serve as a member of the state militia as the need arose from foreign invasion or a tyrannical government. Since times have changed and the chances of either circumstance occurring is remote, the "right to keep and bear Arms" must also change resulting in a more restrictive gun control policy.

Two distinct divergent perspectives arise from reading the same sentence. It is remarkable how the country is affected by how nine Supreme Court Justices interpret those twenty-seven words.

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Gabe Bernston is a Paralegal Coordinator for the School of Justice Studies at Rasmussen College at the Eagan, MN college campus. Rasmussen College offers Justice Studies careers as well as business degrees including Financial Investigations degree specializations.

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