Text is Not Law
53 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2022
Date Written: July 27, 2022
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Bostock v. Clayton County provides further fodder for debates about textualism, given the dueling opinions of Justices Gorsuch, Alito, and Kavanaugh, each of which purports to apply textualist reasoning correctly. But in a little-remarked-upon passage, Justice Gorsuch’s opinion casually conflates text and law, asserting, “[o]nly the words on the page constitute the law adopted by Congress and approved by the President.” In equating statutory text with law, Justice Gorsuch isn’t alone, following in the footsteps of other prominent textualists, including the late Justice Antonin Scalia and Judge Frank Easterbrook.
But text is not law—and cannot be. Conflating statutory text and law makes a category mistake. And not a harmless one. Nor is the conflation easily dismissed as an example of incautious rhetoric. The conflation fosters confusion about textualism and further muddles public understanding of appellate adjudication by propping up the myth that appellate judges should—and can—avoid making law. Conflating text and law also facilitates a type of literalist interpretation--indeed, opportunistic literalism--that defenders of textualism purport to reject.
Despite these problems, the casual conflation of text and law is likely here to stay, at least in part because it provides rhetorical advantages to textualist judges by allowing them to sidestep thorny controversies about linguistic meaning and the nature of law. This advantage suggests that textualist judges will continue to claim, falsely, that text is law.
Keywords: statutory interpretation, legal interpretation, philosophy of law
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