Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends. March 30, 2006 – September 24, 2014. 97-589.
“The exercise of the judicial power of the United States often requires that courts construe statutes to apply them in particular cases and controversies. Judicial interpretation of the meaning of a statute is authoritative in the matter before the court. Beyond this, the methodologies and approaches taken by the courts in discerning meaning can help guide legislative drafters, legislators, implementing agencies, and private parties. The Supreme Court has expressed an interest “that Congress be able to legislate against a background of clear interpretive rules, so that it may know the effect of the language it adopts.” Though the feed-back loop of interpretive practices coming from the courts may not always speak well to actual congressional practice and desires, the judiciary has developed its own set of interpretive tools and methodologies, keeping in mind that there is no unified, systematic approach for unlocking meaning in all cases. Though schools of statutory interpretation vary on what factors should be considered, all approaches start (if not necessarily end) with the language and structure of the statute itself. In this pursuit, the Court follows the principle that a statute be read as a harmonious whole whenever reasonable, with separate parts being interpreted within their broader statutory context. Still, the meaning of statutory language is not always evident. To help clarify uncertainty, judges have developed various interpretive tools in the form of canons of construction. Canons broadly fall into two types. “Language,” or “linguistic,” canons are interpretive “rules of thumb” for drawing inferences based on customary usage, grammar, and the like. For example, in considering the meaning of particular words and phrases, language canons call for determining the sense in which terms are being used, that is, whether words or phrases are meant as terms of art with specialized meanings or are meant in the ordinary, “dictionary” sense. Other language canons direct that all words of a statute be given effect if possible, that a term used more than once in a statute ordinarily be given the same meaning throughout, and that specific statutory language ordinarily trumps conflicting general language. “Ordinarily” is a necessary caveat, since any of these “canons” may give way if context points toward a contrary meaning. Not infrequently the Court stacks the deck, and subordinates the general, linguistic canons of statutory construction, as well as other interpretive principles, to overarching presumptions that favor particular substantive results. When one of these “substantive” canons applies, the Court frequently requires a “clear statement” of congressional intent to negate it. A commonly invoked “substantive” canon is that Congress does not intend to change judge-made law. Other substantive canons disfavor preemption of state law and abrogation of state immunity from suit in federal court. As another example, Congress must strongly signal an intent to the courts if it wishes to apply a statute retroactively or override existing law. The Court also tries to avoid an interpretation that would raise serious doubts about a statute’s constitutionality. Interpretive methods that emphasize the primacy of text and staying within the boundaries of statutes themselves to discern meaning are “textualist.” Other approaches, including “intentionalism,” are more open to taking extrinsic considerations into account. Most particularly, some Justices may be willing to look to legislative history to clarify ambiguous text. This report briefly reviews what constitutes “legislative history,” including, possibly, presidential signing statements, and the factors that might lead the Court to consider it.”