Legal scholarship highlight: Justice Scalia's textualist legacy

Jonathan R. Siegel is Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School.

The late Justice Antonin Scalia left his mark on the law in many ways, but perhaps his greatest legacy is that he changed the way we think about statutes. Before Scalia’s tenure on the Supreme Court, most judges and lawyers casually assumed that when a court interprets a statute, its job is to implement “legislative intent.” Courts often paid more attention to statutory purpose and legislative history than to statutory text.

Scalia rebelled against these interpretive methods. He believed that when a court interprets a statute, the court’s job is to read the statutory text and do what it says. Even if what it says is stupid. Even if what it says is not what anybody intended. The text of a statute, Scalia believed, is the law.

In a recent article, I chronicle and assess Scalia’s campaign for “textualism.” In the end, I suggest, Scalia both won and lost. He had tremendous influence over interpretive methodology. But he never convinced the Supreme Court, or federal judges generally, to adopt his textualist ideal that “the text is the law.” In some cases, federal courts still depart from statutory text in order to implement legislative intent or statutory purpose.

Justice Scalia (Art Lien)

The way things used to be

In the period preceding Scalia’s arrival on the Supreme Court, the court used interpretive methods that are almost unimaginable today. It often gave itself up to wholly unrestrained reliance on extratextual considerations, especially legislative history. For example, in 1978, in Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, the court considered whether a municipality is a “person” subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. With barely a glance at the statutory text, the court launched into an analysis of legislative history that was so long it had to begin with an overview. The Court devoted 18 pages to recounting congressional debates blow by blow and concluded that Congress “intend[ed]” municipalities to be covered. In Citizens to Preserve Overton Park, Inc. v. Volpe, in 1971, the court made the now-incredible remark that because the legislative history of the statutes at issue was ambiguous, the court would have to look to the statutes themselves to find the legislative intent. Truly, as Scalia later complained, the legal culture was such that “lawyers routinely … ma[d]e no distinction between words in the text of a statute and words in its legislative history.”

Enter Justice Scalia

Scalia started his protests against these interpretive methods modestly. In the 1989 case Blanchard v. Bergeron, he challenged the Supreme Court’s reliance on legislative history, but primarily on the ground that legislative reports are an unreliable guide to legislative intent. He said that committee reports had become “increasingly unreliable evidence of what the voting Members of Congress actually had in mind,” thereby implicitly accepting that a court should care what members of Congress had in mind.

Scalia’s opinions evolved over the next decade and took on a sharper tone. In 1993, in Conroy v. Aniskoff, he said, “The greatest defect of legislative history is its illegitimacy. We are governed by laws, not by the intentions of legislators.” Scalia crystalized his thoughts into a set of lectures delivered at Princeton in 1995, which later appeared in book form. He complained particularly about reliance on legislative history, but that was merely one detail in the bigger picture. The bigger picture was that “[t]he text is the law, and it is the text that must be observed.”

Scalia employed this textualist philosophy from that point forward. Legislative history always remained a particular sticking point. Even when Scalia joined an opinion, he made a point of refusing to join portions that relied on legislative history — a practice he continued over decades. But more generally, he argued that the goal of statutory interpretation is to implement the meaning of statutory text, not the intent behind the text.

Assessing Scalia’s influence

Scalia’s textualist campaign was tremendously influential. He changed the way courts interpret statutes. His influence is visible in virtually every Supreme Court opinion interpreting statutes today. Consider, for example, the 2010 case Bilski v. Kappos, which tested whether a business method can constitute a patentable “process.” For over a century, courts applied patent law with a rich awareness of the history, policies and background understandings of the patent system, which frequently caused courts to gloss, strain and even depart from the patent statute’s text. In Bilski, however, the Supreme Court simply consulted “dictionary definitions,” “common usage” and the interpretive canon against statutory redundancy. Gone were appeals to history, policy and background understandings. Cases like Bilski are far more common today than cases like Monell or Overton Park.

With regard to legislative history, Scalia’s most particular concern, the Supreme Court still consults it, but in a somewhat apologetic way. Often it adds a disclaimer such as “for those who consider legislative history relevant.” The practice of putting legislative history on a par with statutory text has been repudiated.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court, and federal courts generally, have never fully accepted Scalia’s textualist ideal that “the text is the law.” Justice Elena Kagan, in a lecture at Harvard Law School, recently said that thanks to Scalia, “we are all textualists now.” Kagan, however, is correct only in a relative sense. We are all textualists now compared with the 1960s and 1970s. It is now generally agreed that when interpreting a statute, a court should start by reading the statutory text and should not lightly depart from the text. But we are not all textualists by Scalia’s definition. There is not general agreement that “the text is the law.” Recent cases show that courts are not committed to following statutory text no matter what.

For example, two years ago in Yates v. United States, the Supreme Court determined that a fish is not a “tangible object” within the meaning of a statutory prohibition against impeding a federal investigation by destroying or concealing “any record, document, or tangible object.” The four-justice plurality observed that the statute in question, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, was passed primarily to combat financial fraud and held that it did not apply to the case, far removed from its purpose, of a ship’s captain who ordered fish thrown overboard to thwart an investigation into catching undersized fish.

Similarly, in the monumental 2015 case of King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court held that a health-care exchange created by the federal government was an “Exchange established by the State” within the meaning of a provision of the Affordable Care Act that provided subsidies only for health insurance purchased on such an exchange. The statutory text suggested that subsidies were not available in states that had not set up their own health care exchanges, but the court gave the statute a broader reading in light of the essential role that the subsidies played in the overall statutory scheme.

Lower courts also depart from statutory text when the occasion demands. For example, from 2005 to 2008, numerous courts of appeals held (over one fiery textualist dissent) that a provision of the Class Action Fairness Act that allowed certain appeals to be taken “not less than 7 days after” entry of a district court’s order really required such appeals to be taken not more than 7 days after entry of the order. The statutory text was so obviously a drafting error (appeals are always subject to a time limit, not a waiting period) that the courts read it to mean the opposite of what it said.

These and similar cases show that courts do not really believe that “the text is the law” — at least, not always. Scalia’s Supreme Court colleagues did not share his devotion to his textualist ideal. It seems that the newest justice, Justice Neil Gorsuch, may step into Scalia’s textualist role, but the textualist ideal still remains a minority viewpoint.

Why do courts reject the textualist ideal? One reason is that legislatures act generally and in advance, whereas courts encounter statutes at the moment of their application to particular facts. This institutional structure guarantees that legislatures will fail to anticipate everything that statutory text will do and will pass statutes that require courts to deviate from the textualist ideal to reach sound results.

From an advocate’s perspective, the moral is that one must always deploy both textual and extratextual arguments in statutory cases. Advocates should start with the text, no doubt. But they should remember that most judges do not fully embrace the textualist ideal and they should also include extratextual arguments.

Scalia did an important service in recalling attention to the importance of text in statutory interpretation. But other considerations can be important too. There will always be room for debate as to how much judicial gloss on statutory text is permitted, but following statutory text no matter what is not the answer.

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