THE INTERPRETATION OF CONSTITUTIONS

Courts in the United States are regularly called upon to interpret the U.S. Constitution and state constitutions (Baum, 2016). These cases often involve controversial statutes and controversial executive actions. Dozens of cases could be cited here, but one of the most famous involved President Harry S. Truman and the steel industry. In 1952, Truman wished to avert a threatened strike by workers in the steel industry. To do so, he ordered federal officials to seize and operate the nation’s steel mills. The steel companies mounted a legal challenge to his power to do so under Article II of the Constitution, which deals with the powers and duties of the president. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which, by a 6-3 vote, ruled in June 1952 that Truman did not have the power to seize the mills (Marcus, 1994).

Opportunities to interpret constitutional provisions arise more often in federal than in state courts, because the national Constitution is considered more ambiguous in many of its key provisions (McCloskey, 2016). State constitutions, by contrast, tend to be more detailed documents, leaving less room for judicial interpretation.

As this discussion has implied, judicial lawmaking usually concerns the actions of government agencies rather than those of private individuals. However, some public issues are rarely decided in courts. Foreign affairs (because they are considered political and not judicial issues) are generally beyond the scope of court action. For example, and exhibiting what one law professor called “a strange silence” (Schoen, 1994), the Supreme Court refused to rule on the Vietnam War’s constitutionality when asked to do so by opponents of the war. Moreover, courts are seldom involved in matters such as the appropriation of funds or the levying of taxes.

 
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