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Abstract

A long tradition in legal theory views the judicial role as centrally including the duty to make the entire body of law “speak with one voice.” This coherence ideal permeates much of the law of statutory interpretation, but one body of doctrine that it has particularly influenced is the set of standards that federal courts use to determine when a newly enacted statute overrides preexisting legal rules. Determining whether Congress implicitly intends to preempt state law, repeal previous legislation, or displace federal common law is an increasingly important part of the “ordinary diet of the law.” And although, this Article maintains, modern preemption doctrine is largely consistent with the presumptive judicial role in statutory interpretation—that of Congress’s faithful agent—the desire for coherence has motivated the Court to develop standards governing repeal and displacement that deviate from the preemption framework.

This Article argues that courts should abandon the quest for coherence in statutory interpretation. In a reasonably pluralistic society like ours, widespread agreement on a coherent ranking of basic values is unlikely. Against this backdrop of deep disagreement, collective social action is purchased only by hammering out specific compromises, and the overall pattern of compromises is unlikely to be coherent. Imposing coherence on the body of law accordingly unravels the very compromises that allowed the legislature to act and, in doing so, both disrespects the process of mutual compromise that made collective action possible and impedes future legislative action. Recognizing the importance of compromise to modern legislation should lead to the rejection of normative coherence as an ideal in statutory interpretation. And, absent some other justification for their current divergence, the doctrinal standards for repeal and displacement should be unified with the current preemption framework.

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