Going 'Clear'

60 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2019 Last revised: 28 Aug 2019

See all articles by Ryan Doerfler

Ryan Doerfler

University of Chicago - Law School

Date Written: August 1, 2019


This Article proposes a new framework for evaluating doctrines that assign significance to whether a statutory text is “clear.” As previous scholarship has failed to recognize, such doctrines come in two distinct types. The first, which this Article call evidence-management doctrines, instruct a court to “start with the text,” and to proceed to other sources of statutory meaning only if absolutely necessary. Because they structure a court’s search for what a statute means, the question with each of these doctrines is whether adhering to it aids or impairs that search — the character of the evaluation is, in other words, mostly epistemic. The second type, which this Article call uncertainty-management doctrines, instead tell a court to decide a statutory case on some ground other than statutory meaning if, after considering all the available sources, what the statute means remains opaque. The idea underlying these doctrines is that if statutory meaning is uncertain, erring in some direction constitutes “playing it safe.” With each such doctrine, the question is thus whether erring in the identified direction really is “safer” than the alternative(s) — put differently, evaluation of these doctrines is fundamentally practical.

This Article goes on to address increasingly popular categorical objections to “clarity” doctrines. As this Article explains, the objection that nobody knows how clear a text has to be to count as “clear” rests partly on a misunderstanding of how “clarity” determinations work — such determinations are sensitive to context, including legal context, in ways critics of these doctrines fail to account for. In addition, the objection that “clarity” doctrines are vulnerable to willfulness or motivated reasoning is fair but, as this Article shows, applies with equal force to any plausible alternative.

Keywords: Statutory Interpretation, Plain Meaning, Chevron, Legislative History, Constitutional Avoidance, Lenity

Suggested Citation

Doerfler, Ryan, Going 'Clear' (August 1, 2019). U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 720, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3326550 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3326550

Ryan Doerfler (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Law School ( email )

1111 East 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

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