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The art or process of determining the intended meaning of a written document, such as a constitution, statute, contract, deed, or will.
The interpretation of written documents is fundamental to the process and practice of law. Interpretation takes place whenever the meaning of a legal document must be determined. Lawyers and judges search for meaning using various interpretive approaches and rules of construction. In constitutional and statutory law, legal interpretation can be a contentious issue.
Legal interpretation may be based on a literal reading of a document. For example, when John Doe signs a will that names his wife, Jane Doe, as his personal representative, his intent to name her the administrator of his estate can be determined solely from the specific language used in the will. There is no need to consider the surrounding facts and circumstances that went into his choice.
When the intended meaning of the words in a document is obscure and conjecture is needed to determine the sense in which they have been used, mixed interpretation occurs. In such a case, the words express an individual's intent only when they are correctly comprehended. If John Doe refers only to "my wife" in his will, a probate court will have to determine who his wife was at the time of his death. How a lawyer or judge ascertains intent when words are unclear is typically governed by rules of construction. For example, the general definition of a word will govern interpretation, unless through custom, usage, or legal precedent a special meaning has been attached to the term.
When a court interprets a statute, it is guided by rules of statutory construction. Judges are to first attempt to find the "plain meaning" of a law, based solely on the words of the statute. If the statute itself is not clear, a court then may look to extrinsic evidence, in this case legislative history, to help interpret what the legislature meant when it enacted the statute. It is now common practice for statutes to contain "interpretation clauses," which include definitions of key words that occur frequently in the laws. These clauses are intended to promote the plain meaning of the law and to restrict courts from finding their own meaning.
Concern over whether courts apply strict or liberal methods of interpretation has generated the most controversy at the constitutional level. How the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the Constitution has been widely debated since the 1960s. Critics of the Warren Court, of the 1950s and 1960s, charged that the Court had usurped the lawmaking function by liberally interpreting constitutional provisions.
This criticism led to jurisprudence of "original intent," a philosophy that calls on the Supreme Court and other judges to seek the plain meaning of the Constitution. If plain textual meaning is lacking, the justices should attempt to determine the original intentions of the Framers. Those who advocate an original intent method of interpretation also emphasize the need for the justices to respect history, tradition, and legal precedent.
Opponents of original intent jurisprudence argue that discerning the intent of the Framers is impossible on many issues. Even if the original intent is knowable, some opponents believe that this intent should not govern contemporary decision making on constitutional issues. In their view the Constitution is a living document that should be interpreted according to the times. This interpretive philosophy would permit justices to read the Constitution as a dynamic document, with contemporary values assisting in the search for meaning.