The Framework Model and Constitutional Interpretation
Philosophical Foundations of Constitutional Law, David Dyzenhaus and Malcom Thorburn, eds., (Oxford University Press, 2016, Forthcoming)
26 Pages Posted: 20 May 2015 Last revised: 16 Nov 2015
Date Written: April 14, 2015
This essay explains the framework model of constitutions and its consequences for constitutional interpretation.
The framework model argues that a constitution is a basic framework for governance that enables future political development. As a framework, a constitution is always unfinished and must be filled out over time. Although the text of the constitution may not change without amendment, the constitution-in-practice is continually changing through constitutional construction — the building out of the constitutional system through doctrinal development, legislation, administration, institution-building, and the creation and elaboration of conventions.
In the framework model constituent power is not limited to special moments of official amendment or adoption of a constitution; it can be exercised through all of the modes and methods of politics and legal argument that result in constitutional constructions. In particular, social and political mobilizations may exercise constituent power to the extent that they influence constitutional constructions by the political branches or by the judiciary. For this reason, the framework model does not sharply distinguish between constitutional politics and ordinary politics. Constitutional construction is a dialectical process involving all branches of government as well as civil society, which together build out the constitution over time.
Judges must enforce the basic framework and they may not vary from it. Nevertheless, the constitutional framework is unfinished and inevitably requires further construction. The constitutional text, consisting of a combination of rules, standards, principles, and silences, creates an economy of delegation and constraint for the political branches and the judiciary. The basic framework will not be sufficient to decide many if not most constitutional controversies that arise over time. Hence good judging requires constitutional construction consistent with the terms of the basic framework. Because of the dialectical nature of constitutional construction, many paths of constitutional development are possible.
Consensus on a single correct interpretive methodology is not especially important in the framework model. Judges and lawyers will often disagree not only on the best interpretation, but also on the best interpretive methodology. And because, in an evolving state, judicial construction has a dialectical relationship to politics, the course of constitutional doctrine may have many complicated and path-dependent influences and effects. It will not correspond to any comprehensive theory of constitutional interpretation. Interpretive theory in and of itself may do relatively little to constrain judicial behavior. Nevertheless, judges are constrained; constraints come from social, cultural, political, and institutional features of the constitutional system.
At any point in time, some constitutional interpretations are simply not plausible. They are "off-the-wall." Nevertheless, the properties of being "off-the-wall" and "on-the-wall" are not permanently fixed. Constitutional common sense can be altered through sustained political and legal contestation. Mechanisms of social influence form important parts of a political system and help shape the constitution-in-practice over time. Shelley famously remarked that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; he might have added that the members of society, in their various institutional configurations, are the unacknowledged interpreters of a constitution.
Keywords: interpretation, change, constitution, construction, framework, social movements
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation