Backdoor Purposivism

by Anita S. Krishnakumar

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Abstract

It has become standard among statutory interpretation commentators to declare that, “We are all textualists now.” The comment stems from the observation that in the modern, post-Scalia era, all of the Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court pay significant attention to statutory text when construing statutes and, relatedly, that legislative history use by the Court as a whole has declined since its heyday in the 1970s. The account of textualism’s triumph is so prevalent that some scholars have declared purposivism—or at least traditional purposivism—essentially defunct. Two prominent textualist scholars in particular have suggested that there is a “new purposivism” at work on the modern Court and that this purposivism is textually constrained, limiting its focus to the means identified in the text of the statute rather than the underlying policy objectives motivating the statute—or, alternately, using purpose as a threshold consideration in determining whether a statute’s text is ambiguous in the first place.

This Article challenges the conventional “purposivism is dead or dying” narrative in two important ways. First, relying on data from an empirical analysis of 499 Roberts Court statutory interpretation cases decided between 2006 and 2017, it argues that traditional purposivism is alive and well on the modern Supreme Court. That is, while purposivist Justices in the modern era do pay attention to text and invoke textual canons in a way that their 1970s purposivist counterparts did not, modern purposivists have not abandoned the traditional purposive approach of identifying a statute’s policy objective and adopting the construction that best fits that objective. On the contrary, modern purposivists regularly invoke statutory purpose, intent, and legislative history—even if the Court as a whole does not. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Court’s textualist Justices have been quietly engaging in a form of purposive analysis that comes closer to traditional purposivism than scholars and jurists have recognized. That is, the textualist Justices regularly have been using pragmatic reasoning, as well as traditional textual canons such as noscitur a sociis and the whole act rule, to impute a specific intent or policy goal to Congress. This practice, which I call “backdoor purposivism,” goes beyond using text as the best evidence of statutory purpose and entails significant judicial guesswork and construction of legislative purpose and intent.

The Article suggests that, in the end, there may be less distance between textualists and purposivists than the old debates suggest—but because textualists have embraced purpose and intent in unexpected ways, rather than because, or merely because, purposivists have become more text focused. It concludes by advocating that both textualists and purposivists employ interpretive resources outside their preferred toolkit to check the accuracy of their initial statutory readings and to curb the influence of their inherent personal biases.

Backdoor Purposivism

by Anita S. Krishnakumar

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

It has become standard among statutory interpretation commentators to declare that, “We are all textualists now.” The comment stems from the observation that in the modern, post-Scalia era, all of the Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court pay significant attention to statutory text when construing statutes and, relatedly, that legislative history use by the Court as a whole has declined since its heyday in the 1970s. The account of textualism’s triumph is so prevalent that some scholars have declared purposivism—or at least traditional purposivism—essentially defunct. Two prominent textualist scholars in particular have suggested that there is a “new purposivism” at work on the modern Court and that this purposivism is textually constrained, limiting its focus to the means identified in the text of the statute rather than the underlying policy objectives motivating the statute—or, alternately, using purpose as a threshold consideration in determining whether a statute’s text is ambiguous in the first place.

This Article challenges the conventional “purposivism is dead or dying” narrative in two important ways. First, relying on data from an empirical analysis of 499 Roberts Court statutory interpretation cases decided between 2006 and 2017, it argues that traditional purposivism is alive and well on the modern Supreme Court. That is, while purposivist Justices in the modern era do pay attention to text and invoke textual canons in a way that their 1970s purposivist counterparts did not, modern purposivists have not abandoned the traditional purposive approach of identifying a statute’s policy objective and adopting the construction that best fits that objective. On the contrary, modern purposivists regularly invoke statutory purpose, intent, and legislative history—even if the Court as a whole does not. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Court’s textualist Justices have been quietly engaging in a form of purposive analysis that comes closer to traditional purposivism than scholars and jurists have recognized. That is, the textualist Justices regularly have been using pragmatic reasoning, as well as traditional textual canons such as noscitur a sociis and the whole act rule, to impute a specific intent or policy goal to Congress. This practice, which I call “backdoor purposivism,” goes beyond using text as the best evidence of statutory purpose and entails significant judicial guesswork and construction of legislative purpose and intent.

The Article suggests that, in the end, there may be less distance between textualists and purposivists than the old debates suggest—but because textualists have embraced purpose and intent in unexpected ways, rather than because, or merely because, purposivists have become more text focused. It concludes by advocating that both textualists and purposivists employ interpretive resources outside their preferred toolkit to check the accuracy of their initial statutory readings and to curb the influence of their inherent personal biases.