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Three Strategies of Interpretation


Adrian Vermeule


Harvard Law School


San Diego Law Review, 2005

Abstract:     
We may distinguish three styles or strategies of decisionmaking. Under a maximizing approach, the decisionmaker chooses the action whose consequences are best for the case at hand (defining "best" according to some value the decisionmaker holds). Where decisionmakers choose the action that is best relative to constraints, accounting for the direct costs and opportunity costs of decisionmaking, we may call the approach optimizing rather than maximizing. Whereas the maximizer focuses only on the case at hand, the optimizer acts so as to maximize value over an array of cases. In contrast to both approaches, satisficing permits any decision whose results in the case at hand are good enough - although satisficing, like optimizing, may itself represent an indirect strategy of maximization.

In this brief essay, I apply these distinctions to legal interpretation. Many approaches to the interpretation of statutes and the Constitution are maximizing approaches that attempt to produce as much as possible of some value the interpreter holds - for example, fidelity to legislative intent or original understandings. Optimizing approaches to interpretation condemn maximizing interpretation as a simpleminded approach that neglects the costs of decisionmaking and the costs of interpretive error. An alternative to both maximizing and optimizing approaches is a satisficing style of interpretation, in which interpreters eschew the search for the very best interpretation (even within constraints), instead selecting an interpretation that is good enough, in light of whatever value theory the interpreter holds.

I criticize the maximizing style of interpretation and praise its two competitors. Both the optimizing and satisficing perspectives help to justify some controversial principles of statutory and constitutional interpretation, such as the rule barring resort to legislative history where statutes have a plain meaning, and clause-bound (as opposed to broadly holistic or "intratextualist") interpretation of statutes and the Constitution. Although maximizing interpretation is untenable, neither the optimizing approach nor the satisficing approach is globally best; each is an attractive decision-procedure in some contexts. Where the interpretive stakes are either very low or very high, satisficing is reasonable (whether or not rational in some stronger sense), while optimizing is best suited to medium-stakes decisions.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 27

Keywords: decision making, decisionmaking

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Date posted: October 29, 2004  

Suggested Citation

Vermeule, Adrian, Three Strategies of Interpretation. San Diego Law Review, 2005. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=612342

Contact Information

Adrian Vermeule (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1525 Massachusetts
Griswold 500
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
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