Myth or Misconception: The Constitution is a document for lawyers and judges.

The Constitution was written for those in whose name it was cast, "We the people." It is a relatively short document, and it is generally straight forward and clear-cut. With only a few exceptions, there is an absence of legalese or technical terms. While the contemporary Constitutional debate has focused overwhemingly on a few broad phrases of the Constitution such as "due process" and "equal protection," the overwhelming part of this document specifies, for example, that a member of the House of Representatives must be 25 years of age, seven years a citizen, and an inhabitant of the state from which he is chosen; that a bill becomes a law when approved by both houses and signed by the President, etc. One willing to invest just a bit more time in understanding the Constitution need only peruse the Federalist Papers to see what Madison, Hamilton or Jay had to say about its provision to a popular audience in the late l8th century.

One reason to believe that the Constitution, as well as our laws generally, should be interpreted according to the straightforward meaning of their language, is to maintain the law as an institution that belongs to all of the people, and not merely to judges and lawyers. Here is an illustration: One creative constitutional scholar has said that the requirement that the president shall be at least 35 years of age really means that a president must have the maturity of a person who was 35 back in 1789 when the Constitution was written. That age today, opines the scholar, might be 30 or 32 or 40 or 42! The problem is that whenever a word or phrase of the Constitution is interpreted in such a "creative fashion, the Constitution--and the law in general--becomes less accessible and less comprehensible to ordinary citizens, and more the exclusive province of attorneys who are trained in knowing such things as that "35" does not always mean "35."

One thing, by the way, that is unusual in the constitutional law course taught at Hillsdale College is that we actually read the language of the Constitution and discuss its provisions as we do so. What passes for constitutional law study at many colleges and universities is exclusively the study of Supreme Court decisions. While such decisions as obviously important, it is also important to compare what the Supreme Court has said to what the Constitution says. What is also unusual at Hillsdale is that by the time students take the course, they have been required to study such informing documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, Washington's First Inaugural Address--and, indeed, the Constitution itself.

By Stephen Markman, Justice Michigan Supreme Court, who teaches Constitutional Law at Hillsdale College. Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, the National Speech Digest of Hillsdale College,