Elizabeth Slattery, January 25, 2013 at 10:00 am
A recent decision by the federal district court for the District of Columbia highlights the importance of proper statutory interpretation and fidelity to the text of laws.
Judicial activism comes in a variety of forms and is certainly not limited to the act of striking down a law, as some liberals tried to maintain during the Obamacare litigation. When considering a challenged statute, as Judge Robert Bork put it, “No judge can possibly avoid seeing a case without his own worldview coloring his vision.” Thus, judges may be tempted to read the text in order to achieve their preferred outcomes. Yet judges should recognize that danger and “consciously strive…for objectivity” rather than contorting the text and subverting the law as written to comport with their own notions of justice.
To arm judges with tools to maintain their objectivity, the Supreme Court has developed various canons of construction for interpreting statutory language and certain overriding presumptions. For example, judges should apply the ordinary dictionary definition of words within the context of a statute unless those words are recognized terms of art or otherwise defined by statute. Consequently, the actual text, rather than the more abstract (and often debatable) “legislative purpose” that inspired it, is the most critical tool in ascertaining what a statute requires. In their treatise on statutory interpretation, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner note that: To Read More….