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America’s growing divide over constitutional interpretation

A majority of Americans say courts should interpret the U.S. Constitution according to what it “means in current times” not as “originally written,” according a new Pew Research Center survey. This year’s survey results mark the first time a majority of respondents (55 percent) advocate that position and reveal a deep, and growing, generational and political divide over the idea of timeless truth.

“Democracy is working well in America” but not “very well,” according to survey participants. The survey asked Americans about the Constitution, elections, congressional representation, and democratic debate. It revealedrespondents’ growing dissatisfaction with the government’s “design and structure.” They called for “significant changes” but demonstrated little consensus on how to achieve that.

But at least one constitutional expert believes the survey respondents’ position on constitutional interpretation indicates a problem with the wording of the survey, not the Constitution.

“Most people think the Constitution should be interpreted to mean what it has always meant,” said Stanford Law School professor Michael McConnell, who served seven years as a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “That’s the commonsensical way we read every text.”

In 2005, Pew began asking Americans if the Constitution should be interpreted according to its original meaning or its current meaning. Respondents remained closely divided until 2016, when the originalists began to decline. A 9 percent spike this year among those advocating a “current times” interpretation put them in the majority for the first time.

The poll, taken in January, February, and March, also reveals the widening gap between Republicans and Democrats and millennials and older members of both parties. Democrats who say the Constitution should be interpreted according to “current times” have steadily increased since 2010, from 66 to 78 percent. And while the number of Republicans who agree with the “current times” interpretation shot up 11 percent since 2016, from 19 to 30 percent, they still come in under the 2005 high of 43 percent for GOP-affiliated respondents.

Read more at World Mag. 

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