The Supreme Court has expressed an interest “that Congress be able to legislate against a background of clear interpretive rules, so that it may know the effect of the language it adopts.” This report identifies and describes some of the more important rules and conventions of interpretation that the Court applies. Although this report focuses primarily on the Court’s methodology in construing statutory text, the Court’s approach to reliance on legislative history are also briefly described.
In analyzing a statute’s text, the Court is guided by the basic principle that a statute should be read as a harmonious whole, with its separate parts being interpreted within their broader statutory context in a manner that furthers statutory purpose. The various canons of interpretation and presumptions as to substantive results are usually subordinated to interpretations that further a clearly expressed congressional purpose.
The Court frequently relies on “canons” of construction to draw inferences about the meaning of statutory language. For example, in considering the meaning of particular words and phrases, the Court distinguishes between terms of art that may have specialized meanings and other words that are ordinarily given a dictionary definition. Other canons direct that all words of a statute be given effect if possible, that a term used more than once in a statute should ordinarily be given the same meaning throughout, and that specific statutory language ordinarily trumps conflicting general language. “Ordinarily” is a necessary caveat, since any of these “canons” gives way if context reveals an evident contrary meaning.
Not infrequently the Court stacks the deck, and subordinates the general, linguistic canons of statutory construction, as well as other interpretive principles, to overriding presumptions that favor particular substantive results. The Court usually requires a “clear statement” of congressional intent to negate one of these presumptions. A commonly invoked presumption is that Congress does not intend to change judge-made law. Other presumptions disfavor preemption of state law and abrogation of state immunity from suit in federal court. Congress must also be very clear if retroactive application of a statute or repeal of an existing law is intended. The Court tries to avoid an interpretation that would raise serious doubts about a statute’s constitutionality. Other presumptions that are overridden only by “clear statement” of congressional intent are also identified and described.
This report sets forth a brief overview of the Supreme Court’s approach to statutory interpretation. The bulk of the report describes some of the Court’s more important methods of construing statutory text, and the remainder briefly describes the Court’s restraint in relying on legislative history. The Court has expressed an interest “that Congress be able to legislate against a background of clear interpretive rules, so that it may know the effect of the language it adopts.” In reading statutes, the Supreme Court applies various rules and conventions of interpretation, and also sometimes superimposes various presumptions favoring particular substantive results. Other conventions assist the Court in determining whether or not to consider legislative history. Although there is some overlap and inconsistency among these rules and conventions, and although the Court’s pathway through the mix is often not clearly foreseeable, an understanding of interpretational possibilities may nonetheless lessen the burdens of statutory drafting and aid Congress in choosing among various drafting options.
Executive Order 12988, which provides guidance to executive agencies on preparing legislation, contains a useful checklist of considerations to keep in mind when drafting legislation. Many items on the checklist are topics addressed in this report, and many of the court decisions cited under those topics have resulted from the absence of clear statutory guidance. Consideration of the checklist may facilitate clarification of congressional intent and may thereby lessen the need for litigation as a means to resolve ambiguity in legislation.
Of course, Congress can always amend a statute to require a result different from that reached by the Court. In interpreting statutes, the Court recognizes that legislative power resides in Congress, and that Congress can legislate away interpretations with which it disagrees. Congress has revisited statutory issues fairly frequently in order to override or counter the Court’s interpretations. Corrective amendment can be a lengthy and time-consuming process, however, and Congress in most instances will probably wish to state its intent clearly the first time around.