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The Hidden Legacy of Holy Trinity Church: The Unique National Institution Canon

Anita S. Krishnakumar

St. John's University - School of Law

January 19, 2009

William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 51, 2009
St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-0142

This Article explores an under-appreciated legacy of the Supreme Court's (in)famous decision in Holy Trinity Church v. United States. While Holy Trinity has been much-discussed in the academic literature and in judicial opinions, the discussion thus far has focused almost exclusively on the first half of the Court's opinion, which declares that the "spirit" of a statute should trump its "letter" and relies on legislative history to help divine that spirit. Scholars and jurists have paid little, if any, attention to the opinion's second half. In that lengthy second half, the Court tells a detailed narrative about the country's historically Christian roots and explains that, other interpretive rules aside, the statute simply cannot be construed against the church-because the United States "is a Christian nation."

This Article maps the methodology of the Holy Trinity Court's "Christian nation" argument and contends that that methodology constitutes an interpretive canon in its own right-one which perhaps aptly can be called the "unique national institution" canon. The Article goes on to demonstrate that this interpretative canon has reared its head in a number of statutory interpretation cases decided since Holy Trinity. In Flood v. Kuhn, for example, the Court, in determining whether the antitrust laws govern baseball's reserve system, paid lengthy tribute to the historical and national significance of baseball in a manner (methodologically) reminiscent of the Holy Trinity Court's Christian nation argument. Likewise, in Leo Sheep v. United States, the Court waxed eloquent about the critical role of railroads in settling the American West in the course of determining the extent of property rights conveyed to the railroads by the United States government. And in FDA v. Brown & Williamson and Morton v. Mancari the Court similarly relied on tobacco's privileged place in the American economy and on the unique status of Native American tribes, respectively, to construe the statutes at issue in those cases. The Article draws a number of parallels between these cases, noting, for example, that the Court always has used the unique national institution canon as a guide to congressional intent and to carve out a statutory exception for one privileged national entity. The Article concludes by evaluating the newly-identified, but long extant, unique national institution canon as an interpretive tool and by exploring the canon's implications for different theories of statutory interpretation.

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Date posted: August 11, 2008 ; Last revised: November 10, 2009

Suggested Citation

Krishnakumar, Anita S., The Hidden Legacy of Holy Trinity Church: The Unique National Institution Canon (January 19, 2009). William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 51, 2009; St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 08-0142. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1213123

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Anita S. Krishnakumar (Contact Author)
St. John's University - School of Law ( email )
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