A Case Study in the Superiority of the Purposive Approach to Statutory Interpretation: Bruesewitz v. Wyeth
45 Pages Posted: 4 Sep 2012 Last revised: 13 Apr 2013
Date Written: August 30, 2012
This Article uses the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Bruesewitz v. Wyeth to examine the textualist or “plain meaning” approach to statutory interpretation. For more than a quarter-century, Justice Scalia has successfully promoted textualism, usually associated with conservatism, among his colleagues. In Bruesewitz, Scalia, writing for the majority, and his liberal colleague Justice Sotomayer, in dissent, both employed textualism to determine if the plaintiffs, whose child was allegedly harmed by a vaccine, could pursue common-law tort claims or whether their remedies were limited to those available under the no-fault compensation system established by the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. Despite these Justices’ common approach to statutory interpretation, they reached diametrically opposite conclusions in opinions that dissected the statutory language and quarreled over the meaning of “even though” and “if” clauses. In contrast, Justice Breyer employed a purposive or “purposes and objectives” approach to statutory interpretation. Rather than obsessing over the meaning of each and every phrase, Breyer looked at Congress’s goals in passing the Act. He recognized that Scalia’s conclusion was correct, not because of the supposedly “plain” meaning of specific language, but because this interpretation was the only one that enabled the alternative compensation system to function as Congress envisioned. Other scholars have analyzed Bruesewitz as a preemption case, but despite statutory interpretation’s inherently decisive role in express preemption cases, this is the first Article to highlight Bruesewitz as an illustration of the emptiness of textualism.
Keywords: statutory interpretation, textualism, plain meaning rule, purposive approach, purposes and objectives, no-fault compensation, federal preemption, National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, Justice Scalia, Justice Breyer, Legal Process School
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