Protean Statutory Interpretation in the Courts of Appeals

85 Pages Posted: 12 Mar 2016 Last revised: 4 Jan 2017

See all articles by James J. Brudney

James J. Brudney

Fordham University School of Law

Lawrence Baum

Ohio State University (OSU) - Department of Political Science

Date Written: December 20, 2016


This Article is the first in-depth empirical and doctrinal analysis of differences in statutory interpretation between the courts of appeals and the Supreme Court. It is also among the first to anticipate how the Supreme Court’s interpretive approach may shift with the passing of Justice Scalia.

We begin by identifying factors that may contribute to interpretive divergence between the two judicial levels, based on their different institutional structures and operational realities. In doing so, we discuss normative implications that may follow from the prospect of such interpretive divergence. We then examine how three circuit courts have used dictionaries and legislative historyin three subject matter areas over the past decade and compare these findings in detail to the interpretive approach taken by the Roberts Court in the same three fields.

We determine that the appeals courts have followed a protean approach, adapting their usage patterns in ways that differ substantially from patterns in the Supreme Court. Court of appeals judges use dictionaries far less relative to legislative history than do the Justices; we found no semblance of the distinctive dictionary culture that is prevalent on the Roberts Court. In addition, the relative frequency of dictionary usage between the two court levels varies considerably depending on the subject area and the type of dictionary (general or legal). With respect to relative frequency for legislative history, the Supreme Court, far more than the circuit courts, invokes the record of changes in statutory text — either modified over multiple Congresses (statutory history) or developed in successive pre-enactment versions of a bill (drafting history). This “vertical history” is apparently more attractive, or less unattractive, to textualist Justices than is traditional legislative history commentary such as committee reports. More broadly, circuit courts regularly use legislative history to resolve ambiguities, confirm apparent meaning, or simply explicate legislative intent, all without characterizing its legitimacy or systemic value.

For both dictionaries and legislative history, the eclectic approach of the appeals courts differs markedly from the Supreme Court’s more self-consciously articulated methodological path. We suggest how certain sources of interpretive divergence contribute to these differences, notably the Justices’ interaction with their colleagues in every case and their experience as objects of continuing media and congressional attention, some of which reflects attention that carries over from the judicial confirmation process. We conclude that the eclecticism of the appeals courts is likely to limit judicial discretion more effectively than the Supreme Court’s current approach, which favors clear interpretive rules or priorities that are applied on a presumptively consistent basis.

Keywords: Statutory interpretation, legislation, courts of appeals, supreme court, legislative history, dictionaries

Suggested Citation

Brudney, James Jules and Baum, Lawrence, Protean Statutory Interpretation in the Courts of Appeals (December 20, 2016). William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2017; Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2745987 . Available at SSRN: or

James Jules Brudney (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

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Lawrence Baum

Ohio State University (OSU) - Department of Political Science

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Columbus, OH OH 43210
United States

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