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Constitutional Theory

Harvard University’s 359th Commencement Address

In this commencement address, Justice Souter outlines an approach to constitutional interpretation. The reasons that constitutional judging is not a mere combination of fair reading and simple facts, he states, extend beyond the recognition that constitutions must have a great deal of general language in order to be useful over long stretches of time. One such reason is that the Constitution contains values that may well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony. Yet another reason is that the facts that determine whether a constitutional provision applies may be very different from facts like a person’s age or the amount of the grocery bill; constitutional facts may require judges to understand the meaning that the facts may bear before the judges can figure out what to make of them. Justice Souter states that we cannot share every intellectual assumption that formed the minds of those who framed the charter, yet we can still address the constitutional uncertainties the way they must have envisioned: by relying on reason that respects the words the Framers wrote, by facing facts, and by seeking to understand their meaning for the living.