Cracking the Whole Code Rule

80 Pages Posted: 29 Feb 2020 Last revised: 19 Mar 2020

Date Written: February 19, 2020

Abstract

Over the past three decades, since Justice Scalia joined the Court and ushered in a new era of text-focused statutory analysis, there has been a marked move towards the holistic interpretation of statutes and “making sense of the corpus juris.” In particular, Justices on the modern Supreme Court now regularly compare or analogize between statutes that contain similar words or phrases — what some have called the “whole code rule.” Despite the prevalence of this interpretive practice, however, scholars have paid little attention to how the Court actually engages in whole code comparisons on the ground. One prominent article on the topic, published twenty years ago, criticized the Court for treating statutes enacted at different times by different legislators as though they were enacted by one, never-changing Congress. Other scholars have touched on the topic in passing, but no one has systematically studied how judges employ this interpretive tool.

This article provides the first empirical and doctrinal analysis of how the modern Supreme Court uses whole code comparisons, based on a study of the full universe of 532 statutory cases decided during the Roberts Court’s first twelve-and-a-half terms. The article first catalogues five different forms of whole code comparisons employed by the modern Court and notes that the different forms rest on different justifications, although the Court’s rhetoric has tended to ignore these distinctions. The article then notes several problems, beyond the unrealistic one-Congress assumption identified by other scholars, that plague the Court’s current approach to most forms of whole code comparisons. For example, most of the Court’s statutory comparisons involve statutes that have no explicit connection to each other, and nearly one-third of the cases compare statutes that regulate entirely unrelated subject areas. Moreover, many of the Court’s analogies involve generic statutory phrases — such as “because of” or “any” — whose meaning is likely to depend on context rather than some universal rule of logic or linguistics.

The article argues that, in the end, the Court’s whole code comparisons amount to judicial drafting presumptions that assign fixed meanings to specific words, phrases, and structural drafting choices. The article critiques this judicial imposition of drafting conventions on Congress — noting that it is unpredictable, leads to enormous judicial discretion, reflects an unrealistic view of how Congress drafts, and falls far outside the judiciary’s institutional expertise. It concludes by recommending that the Court limit its use of whole code comparisons to situations in which congressional drafting practices, rule of law concerns, or judicial expertise justify the practice — e.g., where Congress itself has made clear that one statute borrowed from or incorporated the provisions of another, or where it is necessary to harmonize two related statutes with each other.

Suggested Citation

Krishnakumar, Anita S., Cracking the Whole Code Rule (February 19, 2020). St. John's Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20-0002; New York University Law Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3545523

Anita S. Krishnakumar (Contact Author)

St. John's University - School of Law ( email )

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