Constitutional Interpretation


Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions

Examine the most important and vexing questions in American constitutional interpretation.

Though the Constitution is widely credited for the success of the United States’ republican democracy, people often disagree about how it should be interpreted. What does the Constitution mean? What does it require, and what does it forbid? In this course, we will examine competing theories of, and approaches to, constitutional interpretation.


More specifically, we ask:

  • Should the provisions of the U.S. Constitution be read to give effect to the intent of their framers and ratifiers? If so, what counts as their “intent,” and how is it to be discerned?
  • If “original intent” is not the touchstone of interpretation, how is the constitutional interpreter to avoid simply reading his or her own moral beliefs or political ideology into the Constitution?
  • Who, by the Constitution’s own terms, has the power of judicial review, that is, to authoritatively interpret the Constitution and give effect to its principles and norms?
  • If we accept the principle of judicial review, does that mean that judges always have the final say in disputed questions of what the Constitution means and requires?

Through lectures, Supreme Court cases, readings, quizzes and discussions, this course will give you a better understanding of the most critical questions related to the American Constitution (including the Bill of Rights).

You will learn:

  • The basic alternatives in approaching the interpretation of the Constitution
  • The historical development of the power of judicial review
  • The question of judicial supremacy in relation to Congress and the presidency
  • The relations between a federal government of delegated and enumerated powers and state governments of general jurisdiction and police powers
  • The role of the courts in securing freedoms of religion and speech and rights of property

Course Status


What Learners Say

"This course is extremely well done and presented. Prof. George is an outstanding scholar and superb lecturer. Those of his students who go on to law school will have a huge leg up in Con Law and are unlikely to find a teacher there of his caliber. His analyses are lucid, instructive, and provocative. The course is equally valuable for those of us who are simply trying to navigate our rights and duties as citizens. It has been said that if one wishes to understand our democratic republic, it is better to read the Federalist Papers (and I would add the anti-Federalist Papers) than the Constitution itself. After experiencing Prof. George’s course, I would wish that everyone take it. In fact, I wish it was mandatory for all Congressmen, Executive Branch officers, and Federal Judges. A word of advice for future students: do the readings. On-line discussion- the forum-is worthwhile, but it takes time and patience. (How nice it would be to be present in the precepts!) But, the readings, and especially the cases, speak to you as well, and can be the basis of a kind of dialogue, too, if you are willing to take the time and think. The only criticism I have is that in one of the week’s reading list there were articles you needed to find at a library. This can present a logistical challenge and, in one instance, I was never able to find a copy of one of the books."