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Statutory Originalism with Liberal Results: New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira
Michael Ramsey

Yesterday's unanimous Supreme Court opinion in New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira is a lot more interesting than it sounds.  The Court, per Justice Gorsuch [Justice Kavanaugh not participating] held that the Federal Arbitration Act’s exclusion from arbitration for disputes involving the “contracts of employment” of certain transportation workers applies to truck driver Dominic Oliveira’s independent contractor operating agreement with New Prime Inc.   The key issue was whether whether a "contract for employment" includes an independent contractor arrangement.  And that turns out to depend on what the original meaning of "contract for employment" is.  Here's Gorsuch: 

In taking up this question, we bear an important caution in mind. “[I]t’s a ‘fundamental canon of statutory construction’ that words generally should be ‘interpreted as taking their ordinary . . . meaning . . . at the time Congress enacted the statute.’” Wisconsin Central Ltd. v. United States, 585 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (slip op., at 9) (quoting Perrin v. United States, 444 U. S. 37, 42 (1979)).  See also Sandifer v. United States Steel Corp., 571 U. S. 220, 227 (2014). After all, if judges could freely invest old statutory terms with new meanings, we would risk amending legislation outside the “single, finely wrought and exhaustively considered, procedure” the Constitution commands. INS v. Chadha, 462 U. S. 919, 951 (1983). We would risk, too, upsetting reliance interests in the settled meaning of a statute. Cf. 2B N. Singer & J. Singer, Sutherland on Statutes and Statutory Construction §56A:3 (rev. 7th ed. 2012). Of course, statutes may sometimes refer to an external source of law and fairly warn readers that they must abide that external source of law, later amendments and modifications included. Id., §51:8 (discussing the reference canon). But nothing like that exists here. Nor has anyone suggested any other appropriate reason that might allow us to depart from the original meaning of the statute at hand.

Agreed.  But how about a cite to Scalia & Garner?

The opinion continues:

That, we think, holds the key to the case. To many lawyerly ears today, the term “contracts of employment” might call to mind only agreements between employers and employees (or what the common law sometimes called masters and servants). Suggestively, at least one recently published law dictionary defines the word “employment” to mean “the relationship between master and servant.” Black’s Law Dictionary 641 (10th ed. 2014). But this modern intuition isn’t easily squared with evidence of the term’s meaning at the time of the Act’s adoption in 1925. At that time, a “contract of employment” usually meant nothing more than an agreement to perform work. As a result, most people then would have understood §1 to exclude not only agreements between employers and employees but also agreements that require independent contractors to perform work.

There follows extensive discussion of the original meaning from 1925.

Then a rejection of the purpose-based counterargument:

Unable to squeeze more from the statute’s text, New Prime is left to appeal to its policy. This Court has said that Congress adopted the Arbitration Act in an effort to counteract judicial hostility to arbitration and establish “a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.” Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U. S. 1, 24 (1983). To abide that policy, New Prime suggests, we must order arbitration according to the terms of the parties’ agreement. But often and by design it is “hard-fought compromise[],” not cold logic, that supplies the solvent needed for a bill to survive the legislative process. Board of Governors, FRS v. Dimension Financial Corp., 474 U. S. 361, 374 (1986). If courts felt free to pave over bumpy statutory texts in the name of more expeditiously advancing a policy goal, we would risk failing to “tak[e] . . . account of ” legislative compromises essential to a law’s passage and, in that way, thwart rather than honor “the effectuation of congressional intent.” Ibid. By respecting the qualifications of §1 today, we “respect the limits up to which Congress was prepared” to go when adopting the Arbitration Act. United States v. Sisson, 399 U. S. 267, 298 (1970). 

Result:  The truck driver wins, arbitration loses.

Justice Ginsburg, concurring:

“[W]ords generally should be ‘interpreted as taking their ordinary . . . meaning . . . at the time Congress enacted the statute.’” Ante, at 6 (quoting Wisconsin Central Ltd. v. United States, 585 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (slip op., at 9)). The Court so reaffirms, and I agree. Looking to the period of enactment to gauge statutory meaning ordinarily fosters fidelity to the “regime . . . Congress established.” MCI Telecommunications Corp. v. American Telephone & Telegraph Co., 512 U. S. 218, 234 (1994).

Congress, however, may design legislation to govern changing times and circumstances. See, e.g., Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (slip op., at 14) (“Congress . . . intended [the Sherman Antitrust Act’s] reference to ‘restraint of trade’ to have ‘changing content,’ and authorized courts to oversee the term’s ‘dynamic potential.’” (quoting Business Electronics Corp. v. Sharp Electronics Corp., 485 U. S. 717, 731‒732 (1988))); SEC v. Zandford, 535 U. S.  813, 819 (2002) (In enacting the Securities Exchange Act, “Congress sought to substitute a philosophy of full disclosure for the philosophy of caveat emptor . . . . Consequently, . . . the statute should be construed not technically and restrictively, but flexibly to effectuate its remedial purposes.” (internal quotation marks and paragraph break omitted)); H. J. Inc. v. Northwestern Bell Telephone Co., 492 U. S. 229, 243 (1989) (“The limits of the relationship and continuity concepts that combine to define a [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] pattern . . . cannot be fixed in advance with such clarity that it will always be apparent whether in a particular case a ‘pattern of racketeering activity’ exists. The development of these concepts must await future cases . . . .”). As these illustrations suggest, sometimes, “[w]ords in statutes can enlarge or  contract their scope as other changes, in law or in the world, require their application to new instances or make old applications anachronistic.” West v. Gibson, 527 U. S. 212, 218 (1999).