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06/09/2022

Textualism Wins 24-2 this Week
Michael Ramsey

The Supreme Court decided three cases last Monday with textualism prevailing by a combined vote of 24-2. 

In the constitutional case, Siegel v. Fitzgerald, Justice Sotomayor wrote for a unanimous Court that in Article I, Section 8's bankruptcy clause, "uniform" means "uniform" -- not uniform as to some things or uniform unless there's a reason not to be uniform.  (Thus a law exempting bankruptcy proceedings in some states from fees charged for bankruptcy proceedings in other states is unconstitutional.)

In an 8-0 statutory case (Justice Barrett not participating), Justice Thomas concluded for the Court in Southwest Airlines Co. v. Saxon that people who load baggage onto airplanes are part of  a “class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce” and therefore can avoid contractual arbitration provisions pursuant to federal law.  It's a thoroughly original meaning/textualist opinion, relying heavily on dictionaries from near the time of enactment of the relevant statute (the Federal Arbitration Act, passed in 1925), plus Scalia and Garner's Reading Law (on the meaningful-variation canon) and lots of ejusdem generis.  But no legislative history! 

The Court also brushed aside a "statutory purpose" argument in two short paragraphs:

Southwest falls back on statutory purpose. It observes that §2 of the FAA broadly requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements in any “contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce,” while §1 provides only a narrower exemption. This structure, in its view, demonstrates the FAA’s “proarbitration purposes” and counsels in favor of an interpretation that errs on the side of fewer §1 exemptions. 

To be sure, we have relied on statutory purpose to inform our interpretation of the FAA when that “purpose is readily
apparent from the FAA’s text.” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333, 344 (2011). But we are not “free to
pave over bumpy statutory texts in the name of more expeditiously advancing a policy goal.” New Prime, 586 U. S., at
___ (slip op., at 14). Here, §1’s plain text suffices to show that airplane cargo loaders are exempt from the FAA’s scope, and we have no warrant to elevate vague invocations of statutory purpose over the words Congress chose.

Finally, Justice Thomas had another textualist opinion for the Court in Gallardo v. Marstiller, involving §1396k(a)(1)(A) of the federal Medicaid Act.  In the Court's view: "The plain text of §1396k(a)(1)(A) decides this case" and "Gallardo nevertheless argues that §1396k(a)(1)(A) has a different meaning, largely by discounting the text of §1396k(a)(1)(A) and then relying on other differently worded provisions or on policy arguments, none of which we find convincing."  Justices Sotomayor and Breyer dissented, but Justice Kagan joined the conservative Justices ruling against a sympathetic plaintiff (a disabled child who had been hit by a truck).

Taken with some other cases noted earlier, the term is shaping up as a winning one for textualism (that being overshadowed, of course, by a few big constitutional cases).

(Aside: the less said about Egbert v. Boule, decided yesterday, the better.)