Legal Interpretation as Coordination
Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Jurisprudence (forthcoming)
39 Pages Posted: 19 May 2023 Last revised: 6 Aug 2023
Date Written: May 10, 2023
Is legal interpretation fundamentally guided by a law’s text or its purpose? This chapter revisits this classic debate with new data from experimental jurisprudence. We present a “coordination theory of legal interpretation,” on which legal interpretation is partly an exercise in coordination: judges seek to interpret rules to match interpretations of their peers, other legal officials, and society. Past research indicates that a statute’s plain meaning often constitutes a focal point around which different interpreters successfully coordinate. One proposed explanation of this effect is that law’s text is more univocal than its purpose; that while moral and political disagreement leads to debate about what purpose laws should serve, people can more easily reach an accord on the meaning of a law’s plain text. We test this specific explanation through a coordination game with information exchange and the results do not support it, despite providing further evidence of the impact of coordination incentives on legal interpretation. Our discussion outlines a different possible explanation of coordination around law’s text based on considerations of publicity.
Keywords: coordination, expertise, interpretation, purposivism, textualism
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