Statutory Interpretation:General Principles and Recent Trends
The Supreme Court has expressed an interest “that Congress be able to legislateagainst a background of clear interpretive rules, so that it may know the effect of thelanguage it adopts.” This report identifies and describes some of the more importantrules and conventions of interpretation that the Court applies. Although this reportfocuses primarily on the Court’s methodology in construing statutory text, theCourt’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 astatute should be read as a harmonious whole, with its separate parts beinginterpreted within their broader statutory context in a manner that furthers statutorypurpose. The various canons of interpretation and presumptions as to substantiveresults are usually subordinated to interpretations that further a clearly expressedcongressional purpose.The Court frequently relies on “canons” of construction to draw inferencesabout the meaning of statutory language. For example, in considering the meaningof particular words and phrases, the Court distinguishes between terms of art thatmay have specialized meanings and other words that are ordinarily given a dictionarydefinition. 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 samemeaning throughout, and that specific statutory language ordinarily trumpsconflicting 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, tooverriding presumptions that favor particular substantive results. The Court usuallyrequires a “clear statement” of congressional intent to negate one of thesepresumptions. A commonly invoked presumption is that Congress does not intendto change judge-made law. Other presumptions disfavor preemption of state law andabrogation of state immunity from suit in federal court. Congress must also be veryclear 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 astatute’s constitutionality. Other presumptions that are overridden only by “clearstatement” of congressional intent are also identified and described.