When Courts Step Out of Bounds

As most of us remember from civics class (I really don’t remember anything from civics class or most other high school classes), the US Constitution divides our government into three branches – legislative, executive, judicial. In theory, the legislative branch makes laws. The executive branch approves laws and executes the laws.  While the judicial branch interprets laws and decides constitutional issues.

The Federal Court system has three basic levels – trial courts, appellate courts and the Supreme Court.   One duty of appellate courts and the Supreme Court is to interpret the meaning of laws and the Constitution.  Laws are merely words set to paper.  When appellate courts and the Supreme Court interprets the meaning of a law or the Constitution, the courts are to give the words in the law or Constitution their ordinary meaning.  The courts do this so the intent of the legislature or Constitution drafters will be followed.  After all, if courts are free to decide what words mean independent of a word’s actual meaning, the courts cease to become interpretive bodies and thus become legislative bodies and policy makers.

An example of the US Supreme Court changing the meaning of a word in the US Constitution may be found in Kelo v. City of New London, Conn.  (2005)  125 S.Ct. 2655.   In Kelo, the court interpreted the meaning of the takings clause (the exercise of eminent domain) found in the 5th amendment to the US Constitution.  The takings clause basically states that Federal, state and local governments may take private property for “public use,” as long as just compensation is paid to the owner.  In Kelo, the city took private property to sell to another private party.  It was undisputed the private property was not taken for public use.

Nevertheless, the US Supreme Court ruled in the city’s favor.  But how?  Simple, the US Supreme Court says the terms “public use” actually means “public purpose.”  Since the city had a plan for revitalization and to collect more taxes those facts served a “public purpose.”  The definition of “use” is not the same as “purpose.”  Therefore, the court changed the meaning of the US Constitution on its own.  The drafters of the Constitution set up a deliberate and careful mechanism for amending it.  Courts redefining the plain meaning of words to the Constitution’s text is not part of that mechanism.  Nor should this practice be used by the courts in interpreting laws.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, a decision like that in Kelo should worry all of us.  If courts are allowed to change the plain meaning of words found in laws and the Constitution, then the laws and the Constitution are meaningless as drafted.  Unelected judges become legislators and policy makers.  This type of governing is not what our country’s founders intended.


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