Importance and Interpretive Questions

71 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2023 Last revised: 27 Feb 2024

See all articles by Ilan Wurman

Ilan Wurman

University of Minnesota Law School

Date Written: March 7, 2023

Abstract

In its past term, the Supreme Court formalized what it calls the major questions doctrine. The doctrine, as currently formulated, appears to require a clear and specific statement from Congress if Congress intends to delegate questions of major political or economic significance to agencies. The doctrine has been almost universally assailed on the right by scholars who argue that the doctrine is inconsistent with textualism and on the left by those who claim it is a recently invented, functionalist tool devised to reach anti-administrativist results. One can explain at least some of the cases, however, in a way that constructs a coherent doctrine in which importance has a significant but narrow role in resolving interpretive questions involving ambiguity or uncertainty. Thus understood, such a doctrine could be defensible, if not as a substantive canon, then as a kind of linguistic canon. Unlike other linguistic canons, such a canon would be about how people and lawmakers use language to accomplish results in a circumscribed range of contexts—namely, the delegation of important authorities, whether to other private actors, to government actors in Constitution, or to government actors in the executive department. But unlike substantive canons, it would not relate to a substantive value encoded in the Constitution or in longstanding tradition. Existing empirical work about how legislators legislate, and insights from the philosophy of language, suggest that such a doctrine may be consistent with textualism, and historical research further reveals that a canon of this type may be a longstanding feature of constitutional, contract, and statutory interpretation in related contexts. More provocatively, these same intuitions about importance may explain some substantive canons that are difficult for textualists to justify.

Keywords: major questions, administrative law, separation of powers, delegation, nondelegation, statutory interpretation, West Virginia v. EPA, linguistic canon, substantive canon, mischief rule, legislative intent, high stakes, agency law

Suggested Citation

Wurman, Ilan, Importance and Interpretive Questions (March 7, 2023). Virginia Law Review, forthcoming, Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 4381708, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4381708 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4381708

Ilan Wurman (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota Law School ( email )

United States

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