Congress, Statutory Interpretation, and the Failure of Formalism: The CBO Canon and Other Ways that Courts Can Improve on What They are Already Trying to Do
36 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2017
Date Written: July 7, 2017
The formalist project in statutory interpretation, as it has defined itself, has been a failure. That project — typified by but not limited to Justice Antonin Scalia’s brand of textualism — has been doomed because even its staunchest supporters have been unwilling to carry it out. The rules that judges employ are too numerous to be predictably chosen. There is no ranking among them. They are not treated as blackletter, precedential law. Even formalist-textualist judges, it turns out, crave interpretive flexibility, do not want to be controlled by other courts or Congress, and feel the need to show their interpretive actions are democratically linked to Congress.
What we actually have instead is an approach whose legitimacy depends, in large part, on understanding how Congress works. Establishing the incomplete execution of formalism is a crucial first step in this argument, because the fiction that textualism has been successful in achieving its goals has prevented us from seeing what judges actually want and, in fact, are actually doing.
With that understanding, it becomes clear that better judicial understanding of the realities of congressional drafting practice will not only make statutory interpretation practice more legitimate, but also advance the enterprise of what most judges — even formalists — already see their job to be. If formalism originally began as a second-best alternative to understanding Congress, understanding Congress has emerged as a second-best alternative to carrying out the formalist project.
After laying this groundwork, this Essay offers ten new rules of statutory interpretation — objective, formalism-compatible rules, but rules grounded in congressional practice. It especially highlights one new rule — the CBO Canon — and then offers nine more, including an anticonsistency presumption and presumptions about different legislative vehicles, multiple agency delegations, dictionaries, and special legislative history. Judges of all interpretive stripes have shown new interest in applying this kind of real-world understanding of the legislative process to statutory interpretation doctrine. The goals here are to explore why that might be the case; to meet some of the objections that have been raised about the use of such evidence; and to offer examples to illustrate the very possibility of what might be, and in some cases already is.
Keywords: statutory interpretation, legislation, scalia, formalism, congress, CBO, interpretation
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation