April 6, 2017

Americans remain divided on how the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution

The contentious Senate debate over Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court has cast a spotlight on deep partisan and ideological divisions in Congress – and in the public – over how the high court should interpret the Constitution when making its decisions.

About half of the public (46%) says the U.S. Supreme Court should make its rulings based on its understanding of what the Constitution “meant as it was originally written,” while an identical share says the court should base its rulings on what the Constitution “means in current times,” according to a survey conducted in October. Public opinion about this issue has changed little in recent years.

Republicans and Democrats continue to have very different views about how the Supreme Court should base its rulings: About three-quarters (74%) of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say it should base its rulings on its understanding of the Constitution’s original meaning, while about a quarter (23%) of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say the same. This gap is slightly wider than it was in February 2014, when 68% of Republicans and Republican leaners and 27% of Democrats and Democratic leaners said the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution based on how it was originally written. 

There are substantial differences in these views by age, race and ethnicity, education, and religious affiliation.

By about two-to-one (63% to 31%), adults younger than 30 say the court should base its rulings on its understanding of the Constitution’s current meaning, rather than what it meant when originally written. Views among those ages 30 to 49 are more divided (44% original meaning, 45% meaning in current times). A 54% majority of those 50 and older say rulings should be based on the court’s understanding of the Constitution’s original meaning.

Blacks (63%) are more likely than whites (41%) to say the court should base its rulings on its understanding of the Constitution’s current meaning. And adults with at least a college degree, particularly those with postgraduate degrees, are more likely than those with less education to express this view.

White evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly think the court should base its rulings on its view of the Constitution’s original meaning (79% say this). By contrast, among the religiously unaffiliated, 64% think the court’s decisions should be based on the Constitution’s current meaning, while 30% say it should base decisions on its understanding of how it was originally written.

Topics: U.S. Political Parties, Supreme Court, Political Party Affiliation, Political Polarization

  1. Photo of Samantha Smith

    is a research assistant focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. elain williford4 months ago

    Original intent is the only exceptable way. We must backtrack many laws to undo as much damage as possible to all Americans- most importantly- the meaning of jurys.

  2. Pumpkin King XXIII4 months ago

    It should mean what it meant at the time it was written.
    It, by use of amendments is allowed to be updated if that part is no longer feasible. When you change the interpretation of the intent it invalidates the whole thing.

  3. Anonymous5 months ago

    Although this is an interesting story it fails to provide examples of the difference between “original meanings” and “meaning in modern times.”

    Several Senators during the hearings and debate on the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) have referred to the so-called TransAm Trucking case.

    Driver Alphonse Maddin was fired by TransAm when—fearing for his life in sub-zero weather in a truck and trailer with frozen brakes and non-functioning heater in the cab—abandoned his truck despite orders from the company to remain.

    Gorsuch was the sole dissenter when appeal judges ruled in favor of Maddin when he sued TransAm claiming wrongful dismissal.

    Gorsuch looked at the word “operate” and determined it meant “to drive.” The other judges interpreted the word differently.

    This story should have included several instances of constitutional language and how the interpretations by those favoring “original meaning” or those supporting “meaning in modern times” affected the outcome of key judicial rulings.

    Lacking specific words and examples, this story missed an opportunity to advance our understanding of this debate.

  4. Anonymous5 months ago

    Constitution also says no piracy or counterfeiting but it means nothing to the courts as they steal our money with asset seizure and claim it is profits of a drug sale. Don’t tell me, they can interpret it any way they like. There is only one right way, no deviation or we don’t need a constitution!

  5. Steve Barnes5 months ago

    Of course the demonrats want it interpreted currently. That plays into their big government,nanny state,punish the successful agenda. The framers knew what they were doing and it shouldn’t be trifled with. All anybody has to do to understand what the framers intended is to read The Federalist Papers. Explains everything perfectly.

    1. Anonymous5 months ago

      Steve Barnes,

      Of course you are absolutely right. We need to get back to the original document, and throw out all those pesky amendments that were incorporated later. We have no use for the First Amendment which is just demoncrat nonsense. Nor the Second Amendment, nor the Third….


      1. Anonymous4 months ago

        It’s good that you’re not putting your name to such a stupid post

  6. Bent Lorentzen5 months ago

    Reminds me a lot of the US Constitution Law course I took ages ago, of a conservative, strictly verbatim interpretation V. the liberal, spirit of the Constitution interpretation… AND the ceaseless internal debates among Christian religions of a similar nature with their law book, the most rewritten book in history, the bible. The more you allow fact-based education to help form your brain’s *plastic* neurosynaptic architecture, the more you are inclined to interpret law as a living entity that moves forward in its interpretation, based on the reality of the times.

    1. Greg Goodknight5 months ago

      “The more you allow fact-based education to help form your brain’s *plastic* neurosynaptic architecture, the more you are inclined to interpret law as a living entity that moves forward in its interpretation, based on the reality of the times.”

      That’s an interesting variation on “if you were smarter, more ethical and better educated, you’d agree with me”, but the issue isn’t “conservative, strictly verbatim” versus “liberal, spirit of the Constitution” interpretations. One undisputed fact is that even Scalia wrote “I am not a strict constructionist, and no one ought to be”.

      I was pleased to hear legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen interviewed on NPR soon after the nomination describing Gorsuch as a Jeffersonian textualist, my impressions of the man and his work I’ve encountered since that day have been in harmony with that assessment, and I welcome his appointment.