57 Pages Posted: 2 Jun 2022
Date Written: June 1, 2022
Textualism is now the Court’s lingua franca. In response, some have proposed a “progressive textualism,” defined by the use of traditional textualist methods to reach politically progressive results. This Article explores a different kind of “progressive textualism.” Rather than starting with the desired policy outcome—politically progressive or conservative—we begin from one of modern textualism’s central values: A commitment to “democratic” interpretation. As Justice Barrett argues, this commitment views textualists as “agents of the people” who “approach language from the perspective of an ordinary English speaker.” Textualists thereby claim to promote democracy by interpreting law consistently with what it communicates to the ordinary public. However, recent empirical studies reveal discrepancies between textualist interpretive commitments and how ordinary people understand legal texts. These discrepancies undermine claims that textualists’ methodology is committed to democratic interpretation.
A textualism centered on democratic interpretation would be methodologically more progressive if it centered facts rather than fictions about how ordinary people interpret language. It would recognize that people understand legal language in light of linguistic “(co)text” and “(con)text,” and sometimes nonliterally; they often understand ambiguous terms in law to have legal, not ordinary, meanings; and their understanding of law is informed by its apparent purpose and sometimes by interpretive rules that are conventionally justified on normative grounds. In contrast, current textualism is often methodologically regressive, crafting a fictional “ordinary person” more closely connected to ideological policy goals than facts about ordinary language comprehension.
Keywords: textualism, statutory interpretation, ordinary meaning, experimental jurisprudence
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