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On Reading the Constitution [Hardcover]

Laurence H. Tribe , Michael C. Dorf
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

February 8, 1991 0674636252 978-0674636255 First Edition

Our Constitution speaks in general terms of "liberty" and "property," of the "privileges and immunities" of citizens, and of the "equal protection of the laws"--open-ended phrases that seem to invite readers to reflect in them their own visions and agendas. Yet, recognizing that the Constitution cannot be merely what its interpreters wish it to be, this volume's authors draw on literary and mathematical analogies to explore how the fundamental charter of American government should be construed today.

Editorial Reviews


A lively and important contribution to the continuing dialogue on constitutional interpretation...[The book] serves to remind us of the trouble we make for ourselves when we assume that we can predict the conclusions of the original intentionalist, that liberals are always activists and conservatives never, or that the protections of liberty afforded by a living Constitution have all come from only one ideological camp.
--Harry N. Scheiber (New York Times Book Review)

[A] well-argued and clearly written volume...By the clarity and persuasiveness of their detailed analysis of particular cases, they...establish that progress is made most securely when one proceeds with caution and humility.
--T. R. S. Allan (Cambridge Law Journal)

This book amounts to an energetic and often highly illuminating discussion of how constitutional interpretation inevitably involves substantive choices but is not simply a matter of making things up...On Reading the Constitution reminds us of the extent to which our understanding of constitutional interpretation remains in a primitive state...Tribe and Dorf's book counts as an unusually articulate contribution to the large number of recent works attempting to justify, to preserve, and to extend the work of the Warren Court.
--Cass Sunstein (New Republic)

A provocative, well argued book.
--John Moeller (Political Science Quarterly)

About the Author

Laurence H. Tribe is Tyler Professor Of Constitutional Law, Harvard Law School.

Michael C. Dorf is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 164 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (February 8, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674636252
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674636255
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,697,948 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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10 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Doesn't offer much original insight March 16, 2001
If you find youself reading this or any other work by Laurence Tribe, it is pretty safe to assume that you also find youself somewhere on the left of the political spectrum. I can only imagine that you would come to this book looking for a coherent theory on how to read and interpret that sometimes vague and confusing document upon which our country was founded. Unfortunately, you will not find much original insight in this book, though if you are merely looking for an argument with which to attack so-called "strict constructionism," this will serve that purpose quite well.
It seemed to me that this book did little more than offer up a series of comparisons between law and the Constitution and other disciplines like literature and mathematics. While that may serve a useful purpose, it is of little value for those attempting to find a workable liberal theory through which to interpret the Constitution. And repeatedly throughout this book Tribe and Dorf explicity state that they do not have such a theory, or at least refuse to claim that their ideas are in any way paramount or final.
Nonetheless, it does offer up seveal solid critiques of conservative interpretations of the Constitution which might come in handy, or at least serve as a starting point for further investigation. I would also recommed that one read Antonin Scalia's "A Matter of Interpretation," which contains a rebuttal by Laurence Tribe similar to the arguments found here, but also has a very solidly philosophical criticism of Scalia's "textualist" theory by Ronald Dworkin.
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6 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking Read June 22, 1999
Dr. Tribe of Harvard Law makes many interesting points in his book concerning the methods and approach one ought to take while reading or interpreting the Constitution. I would suggest this book to people that have read the Constitution not once but many times and who are looking to further their understanding. On the contrary you should not purchase this book looking for a formula to understand the Constitution! Rather this book promotes one's thoughts and helps the reader develop an approach in which they ought and ought not read the Constitution. Interestingly enough, for Tribe to claim that he knows the manner in which we ought not read the Constitution presupposes that he knows how we ought to. This then contradicts his final chapters when he claims that there is no correct approach to the Constitution and that any one person's interpretation is no more right nor wrong than the next reader's.
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6 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Historically inacurate September 6, 2001
As was suggested in the previous reviews reading this to find a cogent methodology for Constitutional exegesis is futile, and it was with that expectation I bought the book, relying on the reputation of it's authors.
Several premises are disturbing, for they point out a lack of Historical background of our founding. It suggests there are significant anomalies, for example if the Constitution gives the States a right to republican government and does not define republican government then a pliant construction and application of the text is suggested, this kind of logic is furthered in describing the general terms of the preamble as granting a broad license for inerpretation. The number of explanations offered by Madison on the subject of republican form of gvernment alone is sufficient to dispell the former, and with regard to the latter the topic was first adressed by Brutus, an Antifederlaist, and well responded to in Federalist Essay 41. As the Federalist Essays were a response to fears and criticisms of the then proposed Constitution, the ratification debates as well as the Federalist Essays does grant a significant view as to the consent of the governed 'On Reading the Constitution' seems to deny existed, or may presently exist.
The authors proceed to draw from confusions in the 'conservative' camp regarding constitutional specificity to further their point, quoting Rhenquist from a Texas Law Review article 1976, 'The framers of the Constitution wisely spoke in general language and left to succeeding generations the task of applying that language to the increasingly changing environment..
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