High-Stakes Interpretation

58 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2017 Last revised: 12 Feb 2018

Date Written: March 6, 2017


Courts look at text differently in high-stakes cases. Statutory language that would otherwise be ‘unambiguous’ suddenly becomes ‘less than clear.’ This, in turn, frees up courts to sidestep constitutional conflicts, avoid dramatic policy changes, and, more generally, get around undesirable outcomes. The standard account of this behavior is that courts’ failure to recognize ‘clear’ or ‘unambiguous’ meanings in such cases is motivated or disingenuous, and, at best, justified on instrumentalist grounds.

This Article challenges that account. It argues instead that, as a purely epistemic matter, it is more difficult to ‘know’ what a text means — and, hence, more difficult to regard that text as ‘clear’ or ‘unambiguous’ — when the practical stakes are raised. For that reason, this Article insists, it is entirely rational for courts to be more cautious when interpreting text in high-stakes cases than they would be if the stakes were low. Drawing on contemporary work in philosophy of language and epistemology, this Article grounds its argument in the observation that ordinary speakers’ willingness to attribute ‘knowledge’ or ‘clarity’ decreases as the practical stakes increase. And while the technical explanations of this phenomenon vary, they all reflect a basic insight: that one needs greater epistemic justification to act on some premise the higher the practical stakes.

To illustrate, this Article applies the above insight to various interpretive settings. Considering judicial review, for example, this Article explains that it makes good epistemic sense for a court to wait until it is really sure that a statute means what it thinks it means before taking the extraordinary step of invalidating that statute as unconstitutional. Similarly, this Article urges that it is just sound epistemic practice for a court is to construe a statute in a way that would unsettle an existing implementation regime only if it is especially well justified in its reading of the statutory text, i.e. only if it really knows that its reading is correct.

This Article thus offers at least a partial justification of courts’ seemingly loose treatment of statutory text when the practical stakes are raised. And it does so, in contrast to prior scholarly efforts, by appeal to reasons that both formalists and instrumentalists can accept.

Keywords: Statutory construction, ambiguity, vagueness, judicature, textualism, purposivism, legislation, historical gloss, Old & New Holy Trinity, Bond v. United States, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, Chevron deference, judicial review

Suggested Citation

Doerfler, Ryan, High-Stakes Interpretation (March 6, 2017). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 116, No. 4, Forthcoming, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-11, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2928333

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