How should courts interpret statutes? This question has fueled generations of debate. Some believe generally that legislative intent should be understood based on the greater purpose of the statute; others believe that would be “pure applesauce” and the legislative intent should be understood through the plain meaning of the statute as written. Where one lands on that spectrum dictates the acceptable use of various tools for statutory interpretation, from legislative history to dictionaries. But, this is largely a theoretical exercise because statutory interpretation is messy in practice. The judiciary employs a variety of methodologies across cases, courts, time periods, and even within cases themselves. Judges may align with a methodology in theory but depart from that methodology in everyday practice. As such, the scholarship regarding statutory interpretation does not fully illustrate the way that statutory interpretation actually takes place, especially in the lower courts.
Given that “American courts have no intelligible, generally accepted, and consistently applied theory of statutory interpretation,” many have called for a uniform, singular methodology: “Our legal system must regain a mooring that it has lost: a generally agreed-on approach to the interpretation of legal texts.” Advocates argue that a uniform methodology would provide much-needed consistency in the field of statutory interpretation. It may promote separation of powers principles, inform the legislative approach to drafting, and enhance the rule of law by reinforcing objectivity. But, consideration of a singular methodology begs the question: Is there some value in the chaos? The more fundamental question in statutory interpretation may be whether there are greater benefits to a plurality of opinions and judicial eclectism.
This Essay will consider the disconnect between theory and reality in the realm of judicial decisionmaking and statutory interpretation, explore solutions to close this gap, and reflect on whether those solutions are viable or desirable. Part I will explain the disconnect and examine the role of the federal judiciary today as it relates to a goal of uniformity. Namely, it will highlight differences in the approaches the Supreme Court and the courts of appeals take to using dictionaries, legislative history, and canons of interpretation. Part II will explain why a singular methodology may be a desirable goal. Part III will evaluate the following theories to unify and provide consistency to statutory interpretation: Federal Rules of Statutory Interpretation, Restatement of Statutory Interpretation, and judicial stare decisis. Part IV will explore the less studied topic of whether a unitary approach to statutory interpretation is possible or desirable, ultimately determining that the plurality of opinions and methods on the courts should be embraced.
Chelsea A. Bunge-Bollman,
United We Stand, Divided We Fall? An Inquiry into the Values and Shortcomings of Uniform Methodology for Statutory Interpretation,
Notre Dame L. Rev. Reflection
Available at: https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndlr_online/vol95/iss2/2