There are several ways the Supreme Court has adopted to help interpret the Constitution. One very popular means is through originalism.

Originalism refers to the original meaning of the text. Originalists often come in two forms. Textualists, or original intent. Textualists look at the text of the Constitution as it reads, providing definitions from the time of founding to aid in interpretation. Those who focus on original intent look at the founders purpose within the document to determine the meaning.

D.C. v. Heller is a classic example of a textualist argument. The opinion was written by Justice Scalia, an avid textualist.

D.C. v. Heller

554 U.S. 570 (2008).

This was a case regarding a law that restricted carrying a handgun in the home of D.C. residents.

Textualists evaluate several sources to determine the meaning of the Constitution. They will examine dictionaries, public records, etc. just to make sure they have every linguistic pattern down.

In D.C. v. Heller, Scalia notes that there are two clauses. The first clause states one of the purposes of the second, “To maintain a well-regulated militia.” The second clause is called the “operative clause,” which is significantly in debate. It protects the right to keep and bear arms. Scalia picks apart every word from “keep,” “bear,” “arms,” “militia,” etc. They also examine the text surrounding the amendment. The other texts suggest that this right is designed to be an individual right, rather than a collective right.

Whatever your view of textualism or the Constitution, we all need to agree that text is binding. The only issue we have is that the text left a lot of gaps that need to be filled.

Even with these gaps, the first question originalists will ask will always be historical.

Additional Notes

There were two views of the right to bear arms:

  • An individual view – everyone has the right to bear ams.
  • A collective view – A group of people, such as a militia, has the right to bear arms.

For a long time, nobody knew which view was right. D.C. v. Heller resolved this by adopting the individual view. Why? The word militia meant “able bodied man.” So, the militia referred to an individual ability. This method of interpretation is “original public meaning.” However, the other side argues that this interpretation allows the use of militia to mean for “self-defense” and “hunting.”

The original public meaning means that when you are faced with a phrase, you look at the original meaning according to the public at the time. This meaning can be deciphered through examination of dictionaries from the time, legal documents, etc.

The issue with this method of interpretation is that people can adopt it and use it to decipher the exact opposite decision.

Here, the bottom line, is to show us how original public meaning works.


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.

Will Laursen

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