Doctrine of Constitutional Avoidance: A Legal Overview [September 2, 2014]   [open pdf - 448KB]

"The power of judicial review is both a potent and controversial power, as American history has been replete with examples of outcry at when unelected federal judges invalidate the acts of a democratically elected branch of government. The potential for backlash to judicial review by the political branches has resulted in what late Professor Alexander Bickel termed a 'countermajoritarian difficulty,' as the judiciary is needed to protect the basic principles of the Constitution, but is also necessarily dependent on the political branches to enforce the judiciary's mandates. In other words, judicial review, while necessary to protect the mandates of the Constitution, is inherently antidemocratic, risking an erosion of the judiciary's role in the American constitutional form of government. [...] Professor Bickel's work has been built on by Professor Cass Sunstein, who has argued that when the Supreme Court does reach the merits of a constitutional question (as opposed to avoiding the question entirely), the Court should practice 'judicial minimalism,'--that is, in deciding cases, judges should say no more than necessary to justify an outcome and leave as much as possible undecided. Sunstein justified his theories on the grounds that minimalism reduces burdens on the Supreme Court and promotes democratic dialogue on difficult constitutional law questions. [...] After providing general background on the power of judicial review and the major theories on the constitutional avoidance doctrine, this report explores the various rules that allow a court to avoid a ruling that invalidates a democratically enacted law and the logic behind those rules. The report concludes with an exploration of how the doctrine of constitutional avoidance has influenced some of the recent jurisprudence of the Roberts Court, criticisms of the doctrine, and the implications for Congress."

Report Number:
CRS Report for Congress, R43706
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