The task of interpreting an instrument as dynamic as the Constitution   assumes   great   import   in a democracy. The Constitutional Courts are entrusted with the critical task of expounding the   provisions of the Constitution and further while carrying out this essential function, they are duty bound to ensure and preserve the rights and liberties of the citizens without disturbing the very fundamental principles which form the foundational base of  the Constitution.    

Although, primarily, it is the literal rule which is considered to be the norm   which   governs   the   courts   of   law   while   interpreting statutory and constitutional provisions, yet mere allegiance to the dictionary or literal meaning of words contained in the provision may, sometimes, annihilate the quality of poignant flexibility   and   requisite   societal   progressive   adjustability. Such an approach may not eventually subserve the purpose of a living document.

The   most   important   aspect   of   modern constitutional theory is its interpretation. Constitutional law is a fundamental law of governance of a politically organised society and it provides for an independent judicial system which has the onerous responsibility of decisional process in the sphere of application of the constitutional norms. The resultant consequences do have a vital impact on the well¬ being   of   the   people.   The   principles   of   constitutional interpretation, thus, occupy a prime place in the method of adjudication.

In bringing about constitutional order through interpretation,   the   judiciary   is   often   confronted   with   two propositions     whether   the   provisions   of   the   Constitution ― should be interpreted as it was understood at the time of framing of the Constitution unmindful of the circumstances at the time when it was subsequently interpreted or whether the constitutional provisions should be interpreted in the light of contemporaneous needs, experiences and knowledge.

In other words, should   it   be   historical   interpretation   or contemporaneous   interpretation.  The   theory   of   historical perspective   found   its   votary   in   Chief   Justice   Taney   who categorically stated in Dred Scott v Sanford[1] that as long as the Constitution continues to exist in the present form, it speaks not only in the same words but also with the same meaning and intent with which it spoke when it came from the   hands   of   the   framers.  

Similar   observations   have   been made by Justice Sutherland[2].  Propagating a different angle, Chief   Justice   Marshall   in  McCulloch v  Maryland[3]  has observed that the American Constitution is intended to serve for ages to come and it should be adopted to various crises of human affairs.

Justice Hughes in State v. Superior Court[4] observed   that   the   constitutional   provisions   should   be interpreted   to   meet   and   cover   the   changing   conditions   of social life and economic life. Justice Holmes observed that the meaning of the constitutional terms is to be gleaned from their origin and the line of their growth.[5]

Cardozo once stated:¬

“A Constitution states or ought to state not rules for the passing hour but principles for an expanding future.”[6]

It would be interesting to note that Justice Brandeis tried to draw a distinction between interpretation and application of constitutional provisions[7]. The Constitution makers in their wisdom must have reasonably envisaged the future needs and attempted   at   durable   framework   of   the   Constitution.   They must not have made the Constitution so rigid as to affect the future.   There   is   a   difference   between   modification   and subversion   of   the   provisions   of   the   Constitution   through interpretation.

The view is that there is sufficient elasticity but fundamental   changes   are   not   envisaged   by   interpretation. Thus,   there   is   a   possibility   of   reading   into   the   provisions certain regulations or amplifications which are not directly dealt with. There is yet another angle that the libertarian’s absolutism principle never allows for restrictions to be read into   the   liberties   which   are   not   already   mentioned   in   the Constitution.

Our Constitution, to repeat at the cost of repetition, is an organic   and   living   document.   It   contains   words   that potentially do have many a concept.   It is evident from the following passage from R.C. Poudyal v. Union of India and others[8]

“In the interpretation of a constitutional document, “words   are   but   the   framework   of   concepts   and concepts may change more than words themselves”. The   significance   of   the   change   of   the   concepts themselves is vital and the constitutional issues are not solved by a mere appeal to the meaning of the words without an acceptance of the line of their growth.   It   is   aptly   said   that   “the   intention   of   a Constitution is rather to outline principles than to engrave details””.”

Professor   Richard   H.   Fallon   has,   in   his   celebrated work[9],   identified   five   different   strands   of   interpretative considerations which shall be taken into account by judges while interpreting the Constitution. They read thus:- 

“Arguments from the plain, necessary, or meaning of   the   constitutional   text;   arguments   about   the intent of the framers; arguments of constitutional theory that reason from the hypothesized purposes that   best   explain   either   particular   constitutional provisions   or   the   constitutional   text   as   a   whole; arguments based on judicial precedent; and value arguments   that   assert   claims   about   justice   and social policy.”

Comparing the task of interpretation of statute to that of interpretation of musical notes, Judge Hand in the case of Helvering v. Gregory[10] stated:¬

“The meaning of a sentence may be more than that of the separate words, as a melody is more than the words.”

Jerome N. Frank[11], highlighting the corresponding duty of the public in allowing discretion to the Judges, has observed:¬

“a “wise composer” expects a performer to transcend literal   meaning   in   interpreting   his   score;   a   wise public should allow a judge to do the same.”

The room for discretion while interpreting constitutional provisions allows freedom to the Judges to come up with a formula   which   is   in   consonance   with   the   constitutional precepts while simultaneously resolving the conflict in issue. The   following   observations   made   in  S.R.   Bommai’s   case, throw light on the aforesaid perception:¬

“Constitutional   adjudication   is   like   no   other decision-making.   There   is   a   moral   dimension   to every major constitutional case; the language of the text   is   not   necessarily   a   controlling   factor.   Our Constitution works because of its generalities, and because   of   the   good   sense   of   the   judges   when interpreting it. It is that informed freedom of action of the judges that helps to preserve and protect our basic document of governance.”

It is imperative that judges must remain alive to the idea that the Constitution was never intended to be a rigid and inflexible document and the concepts contained therein are to evolve   over   time   as   per   the   needs   and   demands   of   the situation. Although the rules of statutory interpretation can serve as a guide, yet the constitutional courts should not, for the sake of strict compliance to these principles, forget that when the controversy in question arises out of a constitutional provision,   their   primary   responsibility   is   to   work   out   a solution.

Dickson, J., in Hunter v. Southam Inc[12], rendering the judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada, expounded the principle pertaining to constitutional interpretation thus:¬

“The task of expounding a constitution is crucially different from that of construing a statute. A statute defines present rights and obligations. It is easily enacted and as easily repealed. A constitution, by contrast, is drafted with an eye to the future. Its function is to provide a continuing framework for the legitimate exercise of governmental power and, when joined by a Bill or a Charter of Rights, for the unremitting   protection   of   individual   rights   and liberties. Once enacted, its provisions cannot easily be   repealed   or   amended.

It   must,   therefore,   be capable   of   growth   and   development   over   time   to meet   new   social,   political   and   historical   realities often unimagined by its framers. The judiciary is the guardian   of   the   constitution   and   must,   in interpreting   its   provisions,   bear   these considerations   in   mind.   Professor   Paul   Freund expressed this idea aptly when he admonished the American courts ‘not to read the provisions of the Constitution like a last will and testament lest it become one’.”

The Supreme Court of Canada also reiterated this view when it held that the meaning of ‘unreasonable’ cannot be determined by recourse to a dictionary or, for that matter, by reference to the rules of statutory construction. The Court pointed out that the task of expounding a Constitution is crucially   different   from   that   of   construing   a   statute,   for   a statute defines present rights and obligations and is easily enacted   and   as   easily   repealed   whereas   a   Constitution   is drafted with an eye to the future and its function is to provide a   continuing   framework   for   the   legitimate   exercise   of governmental power.

Further, the Court observed that once enacted, constitutional provisions cannot easily be repealed or amended   and   hence,   it   must   be   capable   of   growth   and development   over   time   to   meet   new   social,   political   and historical realities often unimagined by its framers and the judiciary, being the guardian of the Constitution, must bear these considerations in mind while interpreting it.

The Court further stated that the judges must take heed to the warning of Professor Paul Freund when he said that the role of the judges is “not to read the provisions of the Constitution like a last will and testament, lest it becomes one”.

This idea had pervaded the legal system way back in 1930   when   the   Privy   Council   through   Lord   Sankey   LC   in Edwards   v   Attorney   General   for   Canada[13] had   observed that the Constitution must be approached as “a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits”.

Professor Pierre-André Côté in his book[14] has highlighted the action based approach by stating that it must be kept in mind that the end goal of the process of legal interpretation is resolution of conflicts and issues. It would be apt to reproduce his words:¬

“Legal interpretation goes beyond the mere quest for historical truth. The judge, in particular, does not interpret   a   statute   solely   for   the   intellectual pleasure of reviving the thoughts that prevailed at the time the enactment was drafted. He interprets it with an eye to action: the application of the statute. Legal interpretation is thus often an “interpretive operation’’, that is, one linked to the resolution of concrete issues.”


Govt of NCT of Delhi v. Union of India (2018)

[1] 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857)

[2] Home Building and Loan Association v Blaisdell, 290 U.S. 398 (1934) see West Coast Hotel Co., v Parrish, 300 US 379 (1937) where he observed, the meaning of the Constitution does not change with the ebb and flow of economic events that (if)the words of the Constitution mean today what they did not mean when written is to rob that instrument of the essential element..

[3] 17 US (4Wheat) 316 (1819)

[4] State v Superior Court (1944) at 547

[5] Gompers v US 233 (1914)

[6] Benjamin N. Cardozo, The Nature of the Judicial Process, Yale University

Press, 1921

[7] Burnett v Coronado Oil and Gas Co., 285 US (1932)

[8] AIR 1993 SC 1804

[9] Richard H. Fallon, “A Constructivist Coherence Theory of Constitutional

Interpretation”, Harvard Law Review Association, 1987

[10] 69 F. 2d 809, 810-II (1934)

[11] Jerome N. Frank, “Words and Music: Some remarks on Statutory

Interpretation,” Columbia Law Review 47 (1947): 1259-136

[12] [1984] 2 SCR 145

[13] [1930] AC 124, 136

[14] Pierre-André Côté, The Interpretation of Legislation in Canada 2



(Cowansville. Quebec:Les Editions Yvon Blais. Inc. 1992)