From Volume 89, Number 3 (March 2016)
I distinguish three ways by which references to the Declaration of Independence might enter into American legal argument. In primary-legal mode, the Declaration ranks as supreme law beside or above the Constitution, setting mandates as the Constitution does for other purported exercises of legal authority, from Acts of Congress on down. In interpretive-contextual mode, the Declaration provides informative historical context for determinations of the meanings of the Constitution and other laws. In creedal mode, the Declaration serves as a canonical marker for axiomatic principles of good or right government. Creedal uses of the Declaration are common and benign. Interpretive-contextual uses invite debates like those attending other uses of history in legal interpretation. A supreme-law status for the Declaration finds little support in our legal history, nor is there good reason to press in that direction.