Legal Theory Lexicon: The Construction Zone

Claud Mccoid


Regulation students promptly study that many legal texts are imprecise or open up-textured.  Words like “realistic” and phrases like “independence of speech” may possibly not deliver vivid-line policies for their application.  This deficiency of precision results in a zone of underdeterminacy, the place one thing other than the indicating of the text is needed in get to formulate implementation policies (the legal doctrines that courts use to utilize the text to certain scenarios).  If we distinguish amongst “interpretation” (which discovers indicating) and “design” (which establishes legal impact, we can call these zones of underdeterminacy “design zones.”

This entry in the Authorized Principle Lexicon provides a short introduction to the thought of a “design zone.”  As generally, the Lexicon is aimed at students, especially first-12 months regulation students, with an interest in legal principle.

The Interpretation-Design Difference

The thought of a “design zone” is based mostly on the interpretation-design difference.  The difference amongst “interpretation” and “design” marks the fundamental conceptual change amongst two activities:

Interpretation is the exercise that aims to get well the indicating of a legal text, such as a deal, regulation, statute, or constitutional provision.

Construction is the exercise that establishes the legal impact of text.  For case in point, in the circumstance of a constitution, design establishes the legal articles of constitutional doctrines and the decision of constitutional scenarios.

This is an old difference in American legal principle and played a well known purpose in the is effective of the fantastic treatise writers of the next 50 % of the nineteenth century and the first 50 % of the twentieth, but it slowly fell into disuse.  The revival of the interpretation-design difference is affiliated with the “New Originalism” and especially Keith Whittington and Randy Barnett.


The thought of “underdeterminacy” is finest stated by comparison with two contrasting concepts, “determinacy” and “indeterminacy.”  A legal text is “indeterminate” if it provides no advice at all, allowing judges arrive at any end result they wish.  A legal text is “determinate” if it absolutely establishes application.  “Underdeterminacy” applies when a legal text is constant with far more than one end result, but policies out other outcomes.  In other words, a legal text is underdeterminate with regard to the legal policies that put into action that text if and only if it makes it possible for for some feasible policies but policies out other people.

Design zones crop up mainly because the indicating of some legal texts underdetermines the legal impact that is presented by courts and other officials to the text.  For case in point, the communicative articles of the phrase “independence of speech” underdetermines the legal articles of no cost-speech doctrine.  The linguistic indicating of the phrase “independence of speech” does not incorporate doctrines such as the difference amongst articles-based mostly and articles-neutral limitations on speech.  These legal articles of these implementation policies is underdetermined by the communicative articles of the 1st Amendment.

There are many factors for the underdeterminacy of legal texts.  Here is a transient catalog:

Vagueness and Open Texture: Some legal texts are imprecise mainly because they build borderline scenarios: for case in point, the word “tall” is imprecise, mainly because there is no vivid-line amongst people who are tall and individuals who are not.  Other texts consist of “open up textured” provisions.  Generally, an open up-textured legal rule has a core of determinate application and an equally determinate core of nonapplication, but results in a set of scenarios the place the rule may possibly or may possibly not utilize.  H.L.A. Hart used the phrase “penumbra” to designate this set of scenarios.

Irreducible Ambiguity: A lot of words and phrases are ambiguous: they have far more than one indicating.  “Lender” can refer to a fiscal institution or the soil that adjoins a river.  Generally, we can take care of ambiguity by context, but some conditions may possibly be irreducibly ambiguous.  For case in point, a legislature may possibly decide to use ambiguous language if a compromise simply cannot be achieved on some issue: this type of ambiguity “kicks the can down the street,” making a design zone to be settled by judges or officials at some foreseeable future day.

Gaps:  Some legal texts may possibly incorporate “gaps.”  For case in point, a statute may possibly build a legal question but deliver no legal rule to govern that question.  The ensuing “hole” results in a design zone.

Contradictions:  Sophisticated statutes from time to time incorporate contradictions, provisions that conflict with each individual other.  All over again, the contradictory provisions build a design zone, the place the resolution of the conflict will have to be accomplished by officials or courts when they put into action the statute.

When a legal text is imprecise, open up-textured, irreducibly ambiguous, has gaps, or incorporates contradictions, it results in a “design zone.”  The legal impact of the constitutional clause, statutory provisions, or deal clause will underdetermine its legal impact.  In this zone of underdeterminacy, design will be needed to ascertain legal articles and application to certain scenarios.  In other words, underdeterminacy results in design zones.

Interpretation Zone versus Design Zone

Now that we have the thought of a design zone, we can introduce a contrasting notion.  The “interpretation zone” is the set of troubles and scenarios for which the indicating of the text is determinate.  Some legal texts are absolutely determinate: once we know what they indicate, we know how to utilize them.  For case in point, the Structure specifies that each individual point out has two Senators: in apply, this provision is absolutely determinate: troubles regarding this provision are in the interpretation zone.

The notion of an interpretation zone is relative to theories of interpretation and design.  For case in point, statutory textualists consider that any statutory issue that can be answered by the indicating of the statutory text is in the interpretation zone.  But purposivists may possibly not settle for this thought.  Simply because they consider that the purpose of a statute should ascertain the statute’s legal impact, they reject the thought that obvious text mechanically resolves thoughts about the legal impact of a statute.

Techniques of Design

Identification of the design zone is only the start out of the evaluation of what to do when a legal text is underdeterminate with regard to some circumstance or issue.  The next phase is to ascertain what procedures of design are suitable for the willpower of legal impact.  This phase entails theories of design: such theories provides procedures for deciding upon implementation policies.

There are many options.  For case in point, we may possibly devise implementation policies by pinpointing the objective purpose or purpose of a statute or constitutional provision.  Or we may possibly use a default rule: for case in point, in constitutional scenarios, courts could defer to democratic officials when the constitutional text is underdeterminate.  Precedent or historical apply may possibly engage in a purpose in the design zone.

The regulation is full of doctrinal approaches for resolving scenarios in the design zone.  For case in point, application of a imprecise or open up-textured statute or constitutional provision may possibly be guided by a balancing take a look at.  Or the courts may possibly precisify a imprecise provisions by devising a vivid-line rule that implements that purpose of the provision.  Another chance is to grant discretion to trial court docket judges to take care of scenarios in the design zone.


The thought of a design zone is a highly effective tool for examining thoughts about the interpretation and design of legal texts.  I hope that this entry in the Authorized Principle Lexicon has furnished a simple introduction to this thought and the complementary notion of an interpretation zone.

Related Lexicon Entries

  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 026: Guidelines, Requirements, and Concepts
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 030: Textualism
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 043: Formalism and Instrumentalism
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 050: Default Guidelines and Completeness
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 063: Interpretation and Design
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 071: The New Originalism
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 074: Restraint and Constraint in Constitutional Principle
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 078: Theories of Statutory Interpretation and Design
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 079: Communicative Content and Authorized Content


  • Jack Balkin, Living Originalism (Harvard University Press 2011).
  • Randy E. Barnett, Restoring the Shed Structure: The Presumptions of Liberty (Princeton University Press 2003).
  • Randy E. Barnett, Interpretation and Design, 34 Harvard Journal of Regulation and Public (2011).
  • Lawrence Solum, The Interpretation-Design Difference, 27 Constitutional Commentary 95 (2010 ).
  • Lawrence Solum, Originalism and Constitutional Design, 82 Fordham L. Rev. 453 (2013).
  • Keith E. Whittington, Constitutional Interpretation: Textual Indicating, Original Intent, and Judicial Review (New ed. University Press of Kansas 2001).
  • Keith E. Whittington, Constitutional Design: Divided Powers and Constitutional Meaning (Harvard University Press 2001).

(Past updated on December 20, 2020)

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