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11/22/2017

Jonathan Siegel: The Legacy of Justice Scalia and His Textualist Ideal
Michael Ramsey

Jonathan R. Siegel (George Washington University Law School) has posted The Legacy of Justice Scalia and His Textualist Ideal (85 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 857 (2017)) on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The late Justice Antonin Scalia reshaped statutory interpretation. Thanks to him, the Supreme Court has become far more textualist. Nonetheless, Justice Scalia never persuaded the Court to adopt his textualist ideal that “the text is the law.” In some cases, the Court still gives greater weight to other indicators of statutory meaning, such as perceived statutory purpose. Fundamental institutional features of courts and legislatures — particularly the fact that legislatures act generally and in advance, whereas courts resolve particular questions at the moment a statute is applied — justify this rejection of the textualist ideal.

Professor Siegel sketches the highlights of his article on SCOTUSblog: Legal scholarship highlight: Justice Scalia’s textualist legacy.  From the section titled "Assessing Scalia's Influence":

Scalia’s textualist campaign was tremendously influential. He changed the way courts interpret statutes. His influence is visible in virtually every Supreme Court opinion interpreting statutes today. Consider, for example, the 2010 case Bilski v. Kappos, which tested whether a business method can constitute a patentable “process.” For over a century, courts applied patent law with a rich awareness of the history, policies and background understandings of the patent system, which frequently caused courts to gloss, strain and even depart from the patent statute’s text. In Bilski, however, the Supreme Court simply consulted “dictionary definitions,” “common usage” and the interpretive canon against statutory redundancy. Gone were appeals to history, policy and background understandings. Cases like Bilski are far more common today than cases like Monell or Overton Park [non-textualist opinions from the 1970s].

With regard to legislative history, Scalia’s most particular concern, the Supreme Court still consults it, but in a somewhat apologetic way. Often it adds a disclaimer such as “for those who consider legislative history relevant.” The practice of putting legislative history on a par with statutory text has been repudiated.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court, and federal courts generally, have never fully accepted Scalia’s textualist ideal that “the text is the law.” Justice Elena Kagan, in a lecture at Harvard Law School, recently said that thanks to Scalia, “we are all textualists now.” Kagan, however, is correct only in a relative sense. We are all textualists now compared with the 1960s and 1970s. It is now generally agreed that when interpreting a statute, a court should start by reading the statutory text and should not lightly depart from the text. But we are not all textualists by Scalia’s definition. There is not general agreement that “the text is the law.” Recent cases show that courts are not committed to following statutory text no matter what. ...