Regulatory Textualism


This Article proposes a textualist approach to regulatory interpretation. Regulatory textualism, however, should be distinct from statutory textualism. Judges should interpret regulations armed not with dictionaries or other general linguistic aids, but rather with a hierarchy of sources that sheds light on the text’s public meaning. Methodologically, this approach tailors positive political theory insights to the rulemaking process. That process features a number of pivotal actors, or veto-gates, who must sign off on a regulation before it can proceed. The court’s interpretive task is to privilege those statements that are more likely to be credible—sincere, not strategic—reflections of the text’s public meaning.

Specifically, the judge should first consider the preamble’s provision-by-provision explanations, which frequently respond to public comments raising potential ambiguities. If ambiguity persists, the judge should then consult the regulatory analyses, which predict the rule’s consequences under specific factual scenarios. Both congressional and presidential veto-gates, as well as the public more generally, rely on these analyses when engaging with the regulatory process. Finally, if these materials conflict, the court should then defer to the agency’s interpretation—provided that the agency provides a reasoned explanation. In this manner, regulatory textualism asks how the reasonable reader of a rule would have understood its meaning as negotiated by the President, Congress, and other politically legitimate actors.