The (Not So) Plain Meaning Rule
28 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2016 Last revised: 14 Jul 2017
Date Written: July 10, 2017
When should a court interpreting some statutory provision consider information besides the text—legislative history, surrounding provisions, practical consequences, the statute’s title, etc.? This might be one of the most asked questions of statutory interpretation.
One recurring answer in the Court’s cases is the “plain meaning rule,” which is something of a compromise. If the statute’s meaning is “plain,” the other information can’t be considered. If it isn’t plain, the information comes in. The rule seems to make obvious sense as an intermediate position between strict textualism and some form of pragmatism.
And yet, once we think a little more deeply about the plain meaning rule, we ought to see that its basic structure is puzzling. Information that is relevant shouldn’t normally become irrelevant just because the text is clear. And vice versa: irrelevant information shouldn’t become useful just because the text is less than clear. We can sketch some conditions under which this puzzling structure could be justified, but we highly doubt that they could justify the plain meaning rule in its current form.
Keywords: plain, meaning, ambiguity, statute, statutory, interpretation, legislative history, free proof, Yates, fish
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