The Disparate Impact Canon
15 Pages Posted: 5 Feb 2018 Last revised: 23 Apr 2018
Date Written: January 26, 2018
During a recent oral argument, Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised the possibility of rejecting a proposed interpretation of a federal statute, the National Voting Rights Act, on the grounds it would have a disproportionate adverse impact on racial minorities. This Essay expands upon Justice Sotomayor's comment, considering the possibility of recognizing a new substantive canon of statutory construction: a "disparate impact canon" that would require courts to construe ambiguous federal statutes in a manner that avoids, combats, or prevents racially disparate impacts. The Essay considers how well a disparate impact canon fits with the standard justifications for substantive canons, as well as its constitutional implications. It concludes by pointing out that debate over a disparate impact canon is a proxy for larger disputes over the proper role of judges and empathy in the adjudicative process -- issues that arose during Justice Sotomayor's confirmation hearings. Recognizing a disparate impact canon would be a natural, albeit substantial, extension of her jurisprudence.
Keywords: disparate impact, racial equality, equal protection, statutory interpretation, canons of construction, substantive canons, constitution, constitutional avoidance, judicial process, judging, empathy
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