37 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2020 Last revised: 2 Oct 2020
Date Written: January 31, 2020
In recent years, perhaps because of the influence of Justice Scalia, the Supreme Court appears to place greater emphasis on texts than ever before. “We’re all textualists now,” Justice Kagan declared in 2015. But it is one thing to say a court will prioritize the text. It is another thing to choose which text is to be prioritized.
Follow the textualism of constitutional interpretation and one sees judges prioritize the public understanding of the privileged white men in power at the time of the framing of the constitutional text. Follow the textualism of federal statutory interpretation and one sees judges prioritize the text exclusively, and if the judges engage with the legislative history of the statute they will engage with the public understanding of the legislators who enacted the law, again, largely privileged white men. The victory of textualism is not necessarily in the outcomes, but in significantly narrowing the scope of evidence available to interpret the text, in some cases to almost nothing but the bare words of the statute. Women, persons of color, and other marginalized persons and entities are almost never relevant to the textualist’s gaze.
The narrow focus of the textualist’s gaze also warps how Indian law matters are decided. The judiciary rarely considers how the governments and people most affected by the text — Indian tribes and individual Indians — understand the meaning of the text. The judiciary, whether it intends to or not, considers Indians and tribes as extraneous to the interpretive process.
Keywords: textualism, legal realism, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, reservation boundaries, Supreme Court, Justice Scalia, Sharp v. Murphy, McGirt v. Oklahoma
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