Interpretive Approaches

Interpretive Approaches in the United States

The ways in which appellate courts go about determining the meaning of constitutional or statutory provisions. A number of factors influence the actual decision, but in each case the courts tend to apply one or more interpretative approaches. One approach is to follow previous decisions. Indeed, adherence to legal precedent may be a critical factor in a decision, yet other considerations are required as well. For example, a court must consider the language of the constitutional or statutory provision. One way to interpret this language is to take a literal approach. Those who advocate strict construction would generally subscribe to such an approach. A similar approach is to adopt the simplest or “plain meaning” of the language. The plain meaning of words may not be clear, however, in which case courts might take a more creative or adaptive approach. Such an approach tends to regard language as offering broad directives that require interpretative adaptation when applied to particular situations. This approach generally suits judicial activists because it allows courts to leave their mark on public policy. Another approach is to interpret law from the standpoint of the objectives of those who wrote the provision under review. In the instance of constitutional provisions, one First needs to determine what the constitutional framers intended. Such a determination is often quite difficult. Legislative intent, on the other hand, may be more readily determined through the records of the legislative debates or the legislative history of a statute.

See Also

Judicial Activism (Apellate Judicial Process) Judicial Review (Apellate Judicial Process); JUDICIAL SELF- RESTRAINT, 311; Statutory Construction (Apellate Judicial Process) Strict Construction (Apellate Judicial Process).

Analysis and Relevance

A number of factors, including interpretive approaches, influence an appellate court decision on a constitutional or statutory question. These factors overlap, with the result that some combination of factors is required to understand a court’s reasoning. Legal precedent is clearly one relevant factor. There are a number of prior decisions that might apply to a particular case, however, and new situations may arise that do not quite fit existing precedent. In such situations, other interpretive approaches are used. Also influencing decisions are the value orientations of the individual judges on the court. Justification of a policy direction can be facilitated by selection of a particular interpretive approach. Finally, judicial decisions are influenced by the political environment in which they are made. Thus, one interpretive approach may be appropriate at one time, but unwise at another.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Interpretive Approaches from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California






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