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Constitutional Interpretation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 July 2014

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This Article explores the specificity of constitutional interpretation. It cannot be found in its object, but in the quality of the interpreters, the augmentative techniques it applies, and the standards it produces. The interpreters are not only courts, but also non-judicial authorities such as the Executive or the Parliament. Constitutional interpretation by these authorities tends to be exercised collectively. Although the methods that may be used for constitutional interpretation are the same as those used for statutory interpretation, one notices that there is more frequent use of certain types of arguments. But the most important distinctive character of constitutional interpretation lies in the nature of what it produces. Its output is the constitution. This is true first because by deciding what the meaning of the constitutional text is, the interpreter decides on the substance of the constitutional norm. But the interpreter also decides that a particular text, which until the moment of the decision had no legal value or had the value of a statute, has the meaning of a constitutional norm. At the same time he decides that by being a constitutional norm it prevails over other norms and decides what this supremacy entails. It can therefore be said that constitutional interpretation constitutes the Constitution.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press and The Faculty of Law, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 2006

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University of Paris X-Nanterre, Centre de Théorie et Analyse des Normes (UMR CNRS 7074).


1 Guastini, Riccardo, Lezioni di teoria Costituzionale 123 (2001)Google Scholar; Guastini, Riccardo, L'interpretazione dei documenti normativi 267 (2004)Google Scholar.

2 The “constitutional standards a tribunal shall apply in the future, and more specifically those which are to determine the substance of future statutes—as for instance the provisions on fundamental rights—ought not to be drawn in too general terms and contain such vague words as “freedom,” “equality,” “justice,” etc., as there might be a risk that power shifts—not contemplated by the constitution and politically undesirable—from the Parliament to an external body which could be the expression of political forces substantially different from those represented in Parliament” (Hans Kelsen, Wer soil der Hüter der Verfassung sein? n°6, quoted in the Italian translation, in Kelsen, Hans, La giustizia costituzionale, a cura di Carmelo Geraci; premessa di Antonio La Pergola (1981)Google Scholar; and Kelsen, Hans, La garantie juridictionnelle de la constitution 239 RDP (1928)Google Scholar. Moreover, this argument is perfectly in accordance with Kelsen's idea that the legal system is essentially dynamic and with the justification he puts forward in favor of judicial review of statutes known in France under the name of “the theory of the railway switchman”: the Constitutional Court would not decide on the merits, not even on the substance but only on the procedure to adopt a specific rule. Deciding that a statute is unconstitutional means, in Kelsen's view, that the rule must be adopted in the form not of a statute but of a constitutional amendment.

3 Alexy, Robert, Theorie der Grundrechte (1985)Google Scholar; Alexy, Robert, Diritti fondamentali, Bilanciamento e Razionalità, 7 Ars Interpretandi 131 (2002)Google Scholar.

4 Id.

5 Every French law student learns that even when a statute empowered an administrative authority to issue an order that was “final and not open to appeal” the Conseil d'Etat is able to decide that this did not preclude a “recours pour excès de pouvoir,” so that the Conseil heard an appeal on such an order and declared it null and void, cf. C.E. 17 February 1950, Dame Lamotte (Rec., p. 110). Cf. Troper, Michel, Une théorie réaliste de l'interprétation, in Dossier: Théories réalistes du droit 51 (Jouanjan, Olivier ed., 2001)Google Scholar reproduced in Troper, Michel, Le droit, la théorie du droit, l'Etat 69 (2001)Google Scholar.

6 In traditional legal language, authoritative interpretation is the interpretation made by the author of the interpreted text himself/herself, under the adage “ejus est interpretari cujus est condere legem.”

7 Interpreting Statutes, A Comparative Study (MacCormick, Neil & Summers, Robert S. ed., 1991)Google Scholar.

8 1 Currie, David P., The Constitution in Congress: the Federalist period, 1789-1801 (1997)Google Scholar; 2 Currie, David P., The Constitution in Congress: The Jeffersonians, 1801-1829 (2001)Google Scholar.

9 Id. 1 Currie, The Constitution in Congress, at 250-253.

10 Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793) was a leading member of the Girondist movement during the French Revolution.

11 Claude Antoine Nicolas Waldec de Lessar (1741-1792) served as Interior Minister and as Foreign Secretary in the Constitutional Cabinet. He was arrested in September 1792 for his opposition to the Austrian war and was murdered in the September Massacres during the same year.

12 Article 16 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 reads “A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.”

13 Session of 10 March 1792, Archives Parlementaires, t. 39, at 539.

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16 Cf. Troper, Michel, La signature des ordonnances; Fonctions d'une controverse [The Signature of Ordinances; Functions of a Controversy] 41 Pouvoirs 76 (1987)Google Scholar; trad. ital. ds. Politica del diritto, a. XVII, n. 4, December 1986, 745, reproduced in Troper, Michel, Pour une théorie juridique de l'Eta, 275 (1994)Google Scholar.

17 16 July 1971 - Décision n° 71-44 DC, Loi complétant les dispositions des articles 5 et 7 de la loi du ler juillet 1901 relative au contrat d'association, Recueil 29; RJC 1-24; Favoreu, Louis, Loïc Philip, Les grandes décisions du Conseil constitutionnel 19 (11th ed. 2001)Google Scholar.

18 Frank Michelman holds that an amendment to the constitution is not a new constitution, but an interpretation of the constitution made by the people itself and for this reason, this interpretation imposes upon the Supreme Court ( Michelman, Frank, Can Constitutional Democrats be Legal Positivists? or Why Constitutionalism? 2(3) Constellations 293 (1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 We realize first of all that non judicial interpreters are under no obligation to give any kind of justification. All they have to do is state that the constitution has such or such a meaning. When they do give a justification they do not do it officially and it is not recorded in the decision itself. Actually arguments vary, they can be literal or refer to the spirit of the Constitution.

20 Cf. the dissident opinion of Judge Brandeis in Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co. 285 U.S. 393 (1932); Justice. O'Connor reached the same verdict in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (91-744), 505 U.S. 833 (1992); cf. Baron, Charles, L'interpretazione costituzionale negli Stati americani, in Analisi e diritto (Comanducci, Paolo & Guastini, Riccardo ed., 1996)Google Scholar; Ricerche di giurisprudenza analitica 1996 127 (1996)Google Scholar.

21 There are abstracts of this exceptionally long decision in Dorsen, Norman, Rosenfeld, Michel, Sajo, Andras, & Baer, Susanne, Comparative Constitutionalism, Cases and Materials (2003)Google Scholar.

22 For a more comprehensive demonstration, cf. Troper, Michel, Marshall, Kelsen, Barak and the Constitutional Sophism, in Marbury v. Madison 1803 215 (Zoller, E. ed., 2003)Google Scholar. For an English translation see Troper, Michel, Marshall, Kelsen, Barak, and the Constitutionalist Fallacy 3(1) Int'l J. Con. L. 2438 (2005)Google Scholar.