July 31, 2014

Americans divided on how the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution

Star Ideological Divide in Constitutional InterpretationDemocrats and Republicans remain deeply divided about how the U.S. Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution, according to a new analysis by the Pew Research Center. And there are many differences across demographic groups – especially when it comes to religious affiliation.

About half of the public (49%) say the decisions of the Supreme Court should be based on its understanding of what the Constitution “means in current times,” while roughly as many (46%) say decisions should be based on what the Constitution “meant as it was originally written.”

But Republicans—by more than two-to-one (69% to 29%)—say the justices should base their rulings on the Constitution’s original meaning rather than on what it means in current times. Democratic opinion goes the other way: 70% say the court should base its rulings on an understanding of the Constitution’s meaning in current times (26% say rulings should be based on the document’s original meaning). 

These differing views of how the court should interpret the Constitution may account for some of the partisan differences in opinions of the court itself seen in the Pew Research Center’s latest survey.

And these opposing views on constitutional interpretation are even starker along ideological lines. Fully 92% of those who are consistently conservative on a 10-question scale of political values, along with 72% of those who are mostly conservative on this scale, say interpretation should be based on original intent. By contrast, 83% of those with consistently liberal political values, and 70% of those who are mostly liberal, say the justices’ rulings should be based on the Constitution’s meaning in current times (the items used in the 10-item scale can be found here in Pew Research’s report on Political Polarization in the American Public).

Post-Graduates Views on Supreme Court RulingsTo some extent, the ideological split in the public’s views mirror the ideological divide of the court itself. The originalist position is most closely associated with Justice Scalia, one of the court’s conservative justices. Justice Scalia has often publicly stated his view that interpretation should be based on the document as originally written. Though there are differences among the conservative justices on this question, the view that the current meaning should be taken into account in constitutional interpretation is more closely associated with the positions of the court’s liberal justices.

Among the public, there are also sizeable differences in views of constitutional interpretation, not just by ideology but also by education, race, age and religion.

For example, while 62% of those with post-graduate degrees say constitutional interpretation should be based on the document’s meaning in current times, those who have not graduated from college are more divided on the question (46% current meaning, 49% as originally written). And while about six-in-ten African Americans and Hispanics (61% each) say the court should base its interpretation of the Constitution on the document’s meaning in current times, only 44% of whites say so.

But some of the starkest divides are along religious lines. Nearly three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (73%) say the justices should base their rulings on the original meaning of the Constitution. By contrast, just 44% of white mainline Protestants, 42% of Catholics and 37% of Black Protestants share this view. By nearly two-to-one (63% to 34%), more of those who are unaffiliated with a religious tradition say justices should rule based on the Constitution’s meaning in current times. And — in contrast to other demographic differences — religious differences on this question remain significant even when partisanship and ideology are taken into account.

Topics: Religion and Government, Political Attitudes and Values, Supreme Court

  1. Photo of Jocelyn Kiley

    is an associate director of research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Does It Matter?2 years ago

    Due to lack of oversight of our courts, the Constitution has no universal meaning! The Constitution is never seriously considered by our court. We are taught the Constitution is the “Supreme Law of the Land”. No where in that so called Supreme Law does it give judges immunity from it, and there is never any assurances it will be followed because there is not penalty for failing to follow it. Congress wont impeach anyone who hasn’t killed at least 5 to 10 people, or committed so other crime.
    We are a very lawless country because NO ONE ensure the Constitution and Laws are obeyed as written. There were many accepted rules within society that were similar to British Common Law in America and they did not permit abortions or same sex marriage. The Constitution never permitted either. So we now allow courts to amend the document at will and Congress does nothing, as USUAL!

  2. skip3 years ago

    35% interpret study one way
    35% interpret study another way
    10% start talking about guns
    10% start talking about smug liberals
    10% order pizza ..

  3. Nick Dranias3 years ago

    What does “meant in current times” mean? I think the better way to frame the issue is: Should the constitution be interpreted according to what it meant when it was ratified or should the constitution be mean whatever we want it to mean.

  4. lindaj3 years ago

    All the responders before me are men. How can you believe the literal part when women are humans and people of color are humans, and both are entitled, but only after time passed and the constitution was judged by (then) present-time standards, did they get “rights.” It’s very hard for anyone alive today to really comprehend what people writing long ago meant exactly. Both actual words and their references change, as does society. One woman’s point of view!

    1. Joshua Barnaby3 years ago

      “How can you believe the literal part when women are humans and people of color are humans, and both are entitled, but only after time passed and the constitution was judged by (then) present-time standards, did they get “rights.” ”

      The constitution is a legitimate source of government power only because it was debated on and ratified by our founders in Philidelphia. It is only democratically legitimate to ascribe to the document the views that were ratified at that convention. Any new rights should, and have been, added through the admendment process already set forth in the document. Women and minorities received the expanded rights and suffrage that they deserved through admendments to the constitution. Any “present-time standards” can be set by the democratic process through legislation or constitutional amendment, not by Judical fiat (order). Politicizing the judiciary is destructive to our system of government that requires people to accept and abide by the rule of law, even laws with which they disagree.

      “It’s very hard for anyone alive today to really comprehend what people writing long ago meant exactly”

      In most situations it is not as hard as it may sound to solve this problem, with the exception of applying old language to problems that have arisen from technologies and activities that didn’t exist when our constitution was founded, though even these extensions are more often easily arrived at logically, and cases like these arrise very infrequently. However, language such as “cruel and unusual punishment” should mean what it meant in 1789. If society has changed and now thinks that acts that weren’t considered cruel and unusual in 1789 actually ought to be considered as such, then society today is free to pass legislation or amend the constitution itself if necessary. Giving this power over to unelected judges will only do more to inflame polarization and partisanship in all branches of government.

  5. Richard Rockett3 years ago

    The Constitution of the United States are Legal Rules or Laws is for us to live by without being changed or tampered with!!!! If people of another country come to America live by our rules or go back where you came from….its for Americans and no one else….sorry about different cultures every one comes here should be held to live by the Constution of America……Sorry but rules are rules and cannot be changed….That’s America I know….Enough said..Thanks to everyone that reads this….

  6. Forrest Buckley3 years ago

    I must be missing something. If a majority of conservatives believe the Constitution should be interrupted by what the founders meant when they wrote it then why do they claim the Second Amendment literally means a right to bear arms? If that amendment is read the way it was written, the militia being the first part of the amendment, logically it would appear that a right to bear arms exists ONLY for those belonging to a state militia. Please tell me where I am wrong regarding my understanding.

    1. Joshua Barnaby3 years ago

      The Second Amendment is naturally divided into two parts: its prefatory clause and its operative clause. The former does not limit the latter grammatically, but rather announces a purpose. Simply saying why a right is necessary to protect before claiming that it is a right does not obviate the existence of the right once that reason ceases to be in effect.
      For instance, one can imagine the founders drafting the First Amendment’s protection of “freedom of the press” in order to protect the distribution of anonymously authored pamphlets, or to allow people to use privately purchased printing presses. Yet if the first amendment were phrased, “A robust distribution of political pamphlets being necessary to the maintenance of a free society, Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech,” would anyone seriously argue that such a right would not cover laser printing or online news organizations?

  7. Mr. James3 years ago

    To interpret the Constitution in a way that fits what we would like it to say, rather than what it actually says, is a dangerous act, and one that sets a precarious precedent, because it leaves us subject to the personal viewpoints of nine individual (and, please note, unelected) Supreme Court Justices who, despite their expertise and wisdom, have personal biases and are subject to political pressure, just like anybody else.

    Let us not forget that, if we don’t like what’s written in the Constitution, there exists a very clear process of attaching amendments to it – a process that is much more likely to reflect the will of the people, rather than of a handful of high-powered law scholars.

  8. Packard Day3 years ago

    I seriously doubt whether 70% of the American people could give a cogent explanation describing the US Constitution and/or why it was written in the first place.

    1. Packard Day3 years ago

      Let me also add this. If Pew Research were to conduct a poll asking random American’s what they thought about President Obama’s recent initiative to repeal the second law of thermodynamics, I have little doubt that 35% of the respondents would strongly support the idea while another 35% would just as strongly oppose the effort. None of them, of course, would have even the vaguest inkling about what they were talking about.

  9. Martin Bodner3 years ago

    The Constitution was drafted in 1776. The world has changed since 1776 and I feel That quting our founding fathers Is a farce. The entire world and its inhabitants have completely evolved. I feel that our lawsr should be based on millions of inhabitants who exist on earth today.

    1. platham3 years ago

      The Constitution wasn’t written for the ‘whole world’. And for over 200 years it has made us the most powerful country in the world, provided democracy other countries can’t even comprehend, the most successful country in history . Until greed took over, pols discovered giving goodies could keep them in luxury/power. And most low-information voters who never took the time to read it, can’t name 2-3 of the founders, or how our government works… decided they know better.
      Do yourself a favor and read the Constitution so you can talk/evaluate it fairly. You’ll ‘feel’ better!

    2. Tony Thompson3 years ago

      The Constitution was drafted in 1787 not 1776. That’s just what we need is the Supreme Law of the land the protects our rights against the government interpreted at the whims of people that don’t even know history. I you want to change it to reflect what you think is important today the founders gave us a process for that, it’s called amending it. They didn’t want it amended at them whim of any fad but by the desires of the overwhelming majority of the people. Just because something is currently supported by 51% of the people doesn’t mean it should be imposed on all of us. The Constitution protects you against the whims of those you disagree with just as much as it protects those you disagree with.

  10. Stephen Swain3 years ago

    The “Current Times” cohort are not exactly represented proportionally on this court, rather the reverse. This court is wired toward the stricter-construction/older thinking/rightward looking majority, if that even makes any sense. The Court’s almost reactionary bias is not helping us to form “agree-to-disagree” social policies. The Court seems to almost be flaunting its foot-dragging male members. I have never felt such despair about the US form of government as I do right now.

    1. Tony Thompson3 years ago

      You imposing your will on others is not agreeing to disagree.

  11. Ben Goodman3 years ago

    Now if we could just get someone like Bill Gates to underwrite sending Science News Magazine to every household in the US, conservative disdain for science would wane.

    1. Geraldo3 years ago

      You assume (1) that conservatives would read the magazine and (2) that they would take what they read seriously.

      1. platham3 years ago

        What makes liberals so smug? Such know-it-alls, and if you disagree then your stupid, nutso, etc. Of course conservatives believe in science. We’ve also seen it change- it isn’t, was never, will never be 100% correct. We lost respect for your ‘science’ when you swore a fetus was just a blob. It took ultra sounds, technology to prove it’s not just a fetus but a baby! And your ‘global warming/climate change is settled’ & ‘all scientists agree’ arguments were lies. Follow the money – while destroying industry after industry, our way of life, bankrupting whole cities half the population into poverty- for what? New industries re-inventing the wheel (Solendra, wind farms that didn’t pay off) and making new millionaires. Finally other countries caught on, even the Weather Channel founder -but hey what does he know?
        Scientists are little different than idealouges – once they believe a certain way they will never change. They have too much invested -careers, reputations, party favor and of course, those grants could get cut off.
        BTW, I used to believe everything my professor told us, and that I knew everything too. Grow up!