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The art or process of determining the intended meaning of a written document, such as a constitution, statute, contract, deed, or will.

The interpretation of written documents is fundamental to the process and Practice of Law. Interpretation takes place whenever the meaning of a legal document must be determined. Lawyers and judges search for meaning using various interpretive approaches and rules of construction. In constitutional and statutory law, legal interpretation can be a contentious issue.

Legal interpretation may be based on a literal reading of a document. For example, when john doe signs a will that names his wife, Jane Doe, as his Personal Representative, his intent to name her the administrator of his estate can be determined solely from the specific language used in the will. There is no need to consider the surrounding facts and circumstances that went into his choice.

When the intended meaning of the words in a document is obscure and conjecture is needed to determine the sense in which they have been used, mixed interpretation occurs. In such a case, the words express an individual's intent only when they are correctly comprehended. If John Doe refers only to "my wife" in his will, a probate court will have to determine who his wife was at the time of his death. How a lawyer or judge ascertains intent when words are unclear is typically governed by rules of construction. For example, the general definition of a word will govern interpretation, unless through custom, usage, or legal precedent a special meaning has been attached to the term.

When a court interprets a statute, it is guided by rules of statutory construction. Judges are to first attempt to find the "plain meaning" of a law, based solely on the words of the statute. If the statute itself is not clear, a court then may look to extrinsic evidence, in this case Legislative History, to help interpret what the legislature meant when it enacted the statute. It is now common practice for statutes to contain "interpretation clauses," which include definitions of key words that occur frequently in the laws. These clauses are intended to promote the plain meaning of the law and to restrict courts from finding their own meaning.

Concern over whether courts apply strict or liberal methods of interpretation has generated the most controversy at the constitutional level. How the U.S. Supreme Court interprets the Constitution has been widely debated since the 1960s. Critics of the Warren Court, of the 1950s and 1960s, charged that the Court had usurped the lawmaking function by liberally interpreting constitutional provisions.

This criticism led to Jurisprudence of "original intent," a philosophy that calls on the Supreme Court and other judges to seek the plain meaning of the Constitution. If plain textual meaning is lacking, the justices should attempt to determine the original intentions of the Framers. Those who advocate an Original Intent method of interpretation also emphasize the need for the justices to respect history, tradition, and legal precedent.

Opponents of original intent jurisprudence argue that discerning the intent of the Framers is impossible on many issues. Even if the original intent is knowable, some opponents believe that this intent should not govern contemporary decision making on constitutional issues. In their view the Constitution is a living document that should be interpreted according to the times. This interpretive philosophy would permit justices to read the Constitution as a dynamic document, with contemporary values assisting in the search for meaning.


Judicial Review; Plain-Meaning Rule.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

INTERPRETATION. The explication of a law, agreement, will, or other instrument, which appears obscure or ambiguous.
     2. The object of interpretation is to find out or collect the intention of the maker of the instrument, either from his own words, or from other conjectures, or both. It may then be divided into three sorts, according to the different means it makes use of for obtaining its end.
     3. These three sorts of interpretations are either literal, rational, or mixed. When we collect the intention of the writer from his words only, as they lie before us, this is a literal interpretation. When his words do not express his intention perfectly, but either exceed it, or fall short of it, so that we are to collect it from probable or rational conjectures only, this is rational interpretation and when his words, though they do express his intention, when rightly understood, are in themselves. of doubtful meaning, and we are forced to have recourse to like conjectures to find out in what sense he used them this sort of interpretation is mixed; it is partly literal, and partly rational.
     4. According to the civilians there are three sorts of interpretations, the authentic, the usual, and the doctrinal.
     5.-1. The authentic interpretation is that which refers to the legislator himself, in order to fix the sense of the law.
     6.-2. When the judge interprets the law so as to accord with prior decisions, the interpretation is called usual.
     7.-3. It is doctrinal when it is made agreeably to rules of science. The Commentaries of learned lawyers in this case furnish the greatest assistance. This last kind of interpretation is itself divided into, three distinct classes. Doctrinal interpretation is extensive, restrictive, or declaratory. 1st. It is extensive whenever the reason of the law has a more enlarged sense than its terms, and it is consequently applied to a case which had not been explained. 2d. On the contrary, it is restrictive when the expressions of the law have a greater latitude than its reasons, so that by a restricted interpretation, an exception is made in a case which the law does not seem to have embraced. 3d. When the reason of the law and the terms in which it is conceived agree, and it is only necessary to explain them to have the sense complete, the interpretation is declaratory. 8. The term interpretation is used by foreign jurists in nearly the same sense that we use the word construction. (q. v.)
     9. Pothier, in his excellent treatise on Obligations, lays down the following rules for the interpretation of contracts:
    10.-1. We ought to examine what was the common, intention of the contracting parties rather than the grammatical sense of the terms.
    11.-2. When a clause is capable of two significations, it should be understood in that which will have some operation rather than, that in which it will have none.
    12.-3. Where the terms of a contract are capable of two significations, we ought to understand them in the sense which is most agreeable to the nature of the contract.
    13.-4. Any thing, which may appear ambiguous in the terms of a contract, may be explained by the common use of those terms in the country where it is made.
    14.-5. Usage is of so much authority in the interpretation of agreements, that a contract is understood to contain the customary clauses although they are not expressed; in contractibus tacite veniunt ea quae sunt moris et consuetudinis.
    15.-6. We ought to interpret one clause by the others contained in the same act, whether they precede or follow it.
    16.-7. In case of doubt, a clause ought to be interpreted against the person who stipulates anything, and in discharge of the person who contracts the obligation.
    17.-8. However general the terms may be in which an agreement is conceived, it only comprises those things respecting which it appears that the contracting parties proposed to contract, and not others which they never thought of.
    18.-9. When the object of the agreement is to include universally everything of a given nature, (une universalite de choses) the general description will comprise all particular articles, although they may not have been in the knowledge, of the parties. We may state, as an example of this rule, an engagement which I make with you to abandon my share in a succession for a certain sum. This agreement includes everything which makes part of the succession, whether known or not; our intention was to contract for the whole. Therefore it is decided, that I cannot object to the agreement, under pretence that considerable property has been found to belong to the succession of which we had not any knowledge.
    19.-10. When a case is expressed in a contract on account of any doubt which there may be whether the engagement resulting from the contract would. extend to such case, the parties are not thereby understood to restrain the extent which the engagement has of right, in respect to all cases not expressed.
    20.-11. In contracts as well as in testaments, a clause conceived in the plural may be frequently distributed into several particular classes.
    21.-12. That which is at the end of a phrase commonly refers to the whole phrase, and not only to that which immediately precedes it, provided it agrees in gender and number with the whole phrase.
    22. For instance, if in the contract for sale of a farm, it is said to be sold with all the corn, small grain, fruits and wine that have been got this year, the terms, that have been got this year, refer to the whole phrase, and not to the wine only, and consequently the old corn is not less excepted than the old wine; it would be otherwise if it had been said, all the wine that has been got this year, for the expression is in the singular, and only refers to the wine and not to the rest of the phrase, with which it does not agree in number. Vide 1 Bouv. Inst. n. 86, et seq.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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