Who Interprets the Law?

Interpreting the law is a complex and nuanced process, and there are a variety of different actors who play a role in this process. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of the different actors involved in interpreting the law, and how they work together to ensure that the law is applied fairly and accurately.

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The Role of Judges

American judges play a vital role in our society, but their role is often misunderstood.

The job of a judge is to interpret the law, not to create it. Judges base their decisions on the Constitution and on precedent, the legal principle that the decisions of earlier cases should be followed in similar cases.

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and it is the duty of judges to interpret it correctly. When judges make decisions, they must explain their reasoning so that we can all understand why they have reached a particular conclusion.

While judges are supposed to be impartial, they are human beings with their own personal beliefs and values. These beliefs and values may influence their interpretation of the law. That is why it is important for judges to be well-educated and open-minded. They should also be able to put aside their personal beliefs when making decisions.

The Importance of Precedent

In the United States, the Supreme Court is the court of last resort—the court to which all other courts defer. The decisions of the Supreme Court therefore establish binding precedent on all other courts in the country. When a lower court encounters a legal question that has not been directly addressed by a higher court, it will look to the decision of a higher court in a similar case as persuasive authority. In this way, precedent establishes the law of the land.

The importance of precedent can be seen in two ways. First, precedent helps to ensure that similar cases are treated similarly. This promotes fairness and predictability in the legal system. Second, because Supreme Court precedent is binding on all lower courts, it helps to ensure that there is uniformity in the interpretation and application of the law throughout the country.

Legislative Intent

When Congress passes a law, it is up to the courts to interpret what the law means. This process is known as legislative intent. In order to determine legislative intent, courts will look at the language of the law, as well as the debates and discussion that took place during its passage. Courts will also look at the law’s purpose and its effect on other laws.

The Plain Meaning Rule

In legal interpretation, the plain meaning rule is a rule of thumb that requires courts to interpret statutes and contracts in accordance with the common understanding of the now t words at the time when they were enacted or created. The rule is also known as the literal rule, the common-sense rule, or the golden rule.

Canons of Construction

When a law is vague, a court may look to canons of construction to aid its interpretation. A canon is a rule that helps determine the meaning of a law. There are three canons of construction that courts use most often: the plain-meaning canon, the anti-interpretation canon, and the constitutional-avoidance canon.

The plain-meaning canon says that when the language of a law is clear, we must give it effect without looking to extrinsic sources. In other words, if Congress says “the moon is made of green cheese,” we’re not going to look outside the statute to see if that’s really true. We’re just going to assume that Congress knows what it’s talking about and follow the statute as written.

The anti-interpretation canon says that when the language of a law is ambiguous, we should not interpret it in a way that would create an absurd result. So, if Congress says “flamingos may not be kept as pets,” we’re not going to interpret that to mean that pet stores can’t sell pink leashes. Instead, we’ll interpret it to mean what it probably means: that you can’t keep a flamingo in your house.

The constitutional-avoidance canon says that when interpreting a law, we should avoid any interpretation that would raise serious constitutional concerns. So, if Congress passes a law saying “the president shall be elected by popular vote,” we’re not going to interpret that to mean that the President can be elected by a simple majority vote of all American citizens. Instead, we’ll interpreted it to mean what it probably means: that the President should be elected by the people through their representatives in Congress (the Electoral College).

Purposive Approach

In common law systems, courts interpret the law; this is known as the doctrine of judicial precedent, or stare decisis. In civil law systems, courts generally interpret the law, but are believed to do so in a more systematic and authoritative manner than common law judges; this is because civil law courts are believed to be subject to the guidance of legal scholars, rather than mere judicial precedent. Some jurisdictions, such as Sweden, have mixed systems in which both courts and scholars play a role in interpreting the laws.

In some countries like France and Germany, where the legislative process is dominated by a single party or coalition of parties (known as a “consensus-based” system), it is often said that there is no need for an interpretation of the law by the judiciary; instead, the legislature itself interprets the laws through its general administrative regulations (known as “instructions générales”). However, in such countries judicial precedent still plays an important role, particularly in countries with a federal system of government (such as Canada) or where different regions within a country have adopted different legal traditions (such as Belgium).

Structural Approach

Most people view the interpretation of law as the purview of courts. However, this is only one of several approaches to law interpretation. Another approach, known as the structural approach, focuses on the organization of the legal system itself. This approach is concerned with how the various parts of the legal system interact with each other, and how they function together to provide structure and stability to society.

Historical Approach

In the early days of the American republic, the task of interpretation was left primarily to the courts. Court decisions were based on English common law, which was itself rooted in centuries of tradition. Over time, however, American courts began to develop their own body of law, which came to be known as case law. Case law is based on the principle of stare decisis, or precedent, which means that courts are bound by the decisions of higher courts in the same jurisdiction.


Textualism is a method of interpretation that gives primacy to the text of a legal document. The theory behind textualism is that the best way to interpret the law is to look at the language that was used by the lawmakers themselves. This approach is sometimes contrasted with ” purposivism,” which gives greater weight to the purpose or intention of the law, as opposed to the actual text.

Textualism has been gaining popularity in recent years, particularly among conservative judges and legal scholars. One of the most well-known textualists is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote a seminal article on the subject in 1977.

There are a few different theories of textualism, but they all share a common focus on the text of the law itself. One common method is known as “plain meaning” interpretation, which simply looks at the words of the statute and tries to determine what they would mean to a reasonable person. Another approach, known as “originalism,” looks at how the words would have been understood by those who drafted or ratified them.

Textualism is not without its critics, who argue that it can be used to justify virtually any outcome, regardless of whether it comports with common sense or morality. They also point out that statutory interpretation is often more complex than simply looking at the words on the page, and that taking too narrow a view can lead to absurd results.

Despite these criticisms, textualism remains a popular approach to statutory interpretation, and one that is likely to continue to gain influence in the years ahead.


In the United States, the question of who interprets the law is a contentious one. The two main schools of thought are originalism and living constitutionalism.

Originalism is the belief that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its original meaning. This interpretation is based on the text of the Constitution, as well as on historical documents like The Federalist Papers. Proponents of originalism believe that this is the only way to ensure that the Constitution is applied evenly and fairly.

Living constitutionalism is the belief that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its current meaning. This interpretation takes into account not only the text of the Constitution, but also changing social norms and values. Proponents of living constitutionalism believe that this is the only way to ensure that the Constitution remains relevant in a changing world.

The issue of who interprets the law is a complex one, and there are convincing arguments to be made for both originalism and living constitutionalism. In the end, it is up to each individual to decide which interpretation they believe is best.

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