What role should the legislative drafting process play in statutory interpretation?

In his recent Download of the Week post, Solum wrote “this is important research, combined with deeply interesting theorizing.” He was referring to Statutory Interpretation from the Inside – An Empirical Study of Congressional Drafting, Delegation and the Canons: Part II, Stanford Law Review, forthcoming, by Abbe R. Gluck and Lisa Schultz Bressman. Part I was published earlier this year. Here are the abstracts for both.

Statutory Interpretation from the Inside — An Empirical Study of Congressional Drafting, Delegation and the Canons: Part I [SSRN], 65 Stanford Law Review 901 (2013):

What role should the realities of the legislative drafting process play in the theories and doctrines of statutory interpretation and administrative law? The ongoing debates frequently turn on empirical assumptions about how Congress drafts and what interpretive rules Congress knows, but there has been almost no testing of whether any of these assumptions reflect legislative reality. We have attempted to fill that void. This is the first of two Articles reporting the results of the most extensive empirical study to date — a survey of 137 congressional counsels drawn from both parties, both chambers of Congress and spanning multiple committees — on topics ranging from drafters’ knowledge and use of the textual and substantive canons of interpretation, to legislative history, the administrative law deference doctrines, the legislative process and the Court-Congress relationship.

Our findings have implications for virtually every swath of the interpretive debates. We can report, for instance, that there are some canons that our drafters know and use — Chevron and the presumption against preemption, for example, but that there are other canons that our drafters know, but consciously reject in favor of political or other considerations, including the presumption in favor of consistent usage, the rule against superfluities, and dictionary use; and still other canons, like Mead and noscitur a sociis, that our drafters do not know as legal rules but that seem to be accurate judicial reflections of how Congress drafts. Our interviews also elicited a treasure trove of information about key influences on the drafting process that legal doctrine rarely considers, from the variety of audiences for legislative history, to the way in which the personal reputation of particular agency heads affects delegation decisions, to the fact that drafting conventions depend on the type of statute being drafted and its path through Congress.

All of these findings, and many others, allow us to press for a more precise answer to one of the fields’ foundational questions: that is, what should be the purpose of these canons of interpretation? Judges, often using the unhelpful generalization that they are Congress’s “faithful agents,” have legitimized these doctrines using a variety of conflicting justifications, some of which turn on empirical reality, some of which do not, and most of which aim to justify many different types of canons that seem to be doing very different types of work. Do the canons reflect how Congress actually drafts, and so effectuate legislative supremacy? Or do judges use the canons for more dialogical reasons, such as to encourage Congress to draft more precisely — and does Congress listen? Might the canons, despite how “neutral” some appear, instead be understood to effectuate judicial values that are external to the legislative process — such as advancing constitutional norms or imposing coherence on the U.S. Code? Our study illuminates this variety across the normative bases for the canons also reveals that each set of justifications rests on a very different vision of the judicial power and the Court-Congress relationship.

Statutory Interpretation from the Inside – An Empirical Study of Congressional Drafting, Delegation and the Canons: Part II [SSRN]:

This is the second of two Articles relaying the results of the most extensive survey to date of 137 congressional drafters about the doctrines of statutory interpretation and administrative delegation. The first Article focused on our respondents’ knowledge and use of the interpretive principles that courts apply. This second Article moves away from the judicial perspective. Our findings here highlight the overlooked legislative underbelly: the personnel, structural and process-related factors that, our respondents repeatedly volunteered, drive the details of the drafting process more than do judicial rules of interpretation. These factors range from the fragmentation caused by the committee system; to the centrality of nonpartisan professional staff in the drafting of statutory text; to the use of increasingly unorthodox legislative procedures – each of which, our respondents told us, affects statutory consistency and use of legislative history in different and important ways. Our respondents also painted a picture of legislative staffers in a primary interpretive conversation with agencies, not with courts, and as using different kinds of signals for their communications with agencies than courts consider.

Most of the structural, personnel and process-related influences that our respondents emphasized have not been recognized by courts or scholars, but understanding them calls into question almost every presumption of statutory interpretation in current deployment. These findings have significance for textualism, purposivism and beyond. They undermine the claims of proponents of each theory that theirs is the most democracy-enhancing, because none makes satisfactory efforts to really reflect congressional expectations. Our findings challenge textualism’s operating assumption that text is the best evidence of the legislative bargain and suggest more relevant – but still-formalist – structural features that might do better. They reveal that although purposivists or eclectic theorists may have the right idea with a more contextual approach, many of factors on which they focus are not the same ones that Congress utilizes. With respect to delegation, for both types of theorists, Chevron now seems too text- and court-centric, in the light of our findings, to actually capture congressional intent to delegate, which has been its asserted purpose.

In the end, our findings raise the question whether the kind of “faithful agent” approach to interpretation that most judges currently employ – one aimed effectuating legislative deals and often focused on granular textual details – can ever be successful. We thus look to different paradigms less dependent on how Congress works, including rule-of-law and pragmatic approaches to interpretation. These alternatives respond to the problem of the sausage factory, but pose different challenges in light of the modern judicial sensibility’s pronounced concern with legislative supremacy.

See also the authors’ Methods Appendix for their two-part series. — Joe

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