Lexical Ordering in Statutory Interpretation

From the abstract for If the Text is Clear–Lexical Ordering in Statutory Interpretation, 94 Notre Dame Law Review ___ (2018) by Adam M. Samaha:

Most courts now endorse lexical ordering for statutory cases. That is, a limited set of top-tier sources, if adequately clear, are supposed to establish statutory meaning. Lower-tier sources are held in reserve for close calls. Examples include legislative history and deference to agency positions, which often are demoted into tiebreaking roles. In fact, some such hierarchy of sources is approved by working majorities at the U.S. Supreme Court and more than forty state supreme courts. Although popular today, lexically ordered interpretation has risen and fallen before. Indeed we should pause to reconsider whether these instructions are justified and whether judges can follow them.

This Article explores the core trade-offs and implementation challenges. On trade-offs, the Article spotlights decision quality, decision costs, and, less intuitively, decisiveness. Compared to aggregating all source inferences, lexical ordering threatens decision quality by sometimes throwing out useful information, but it can reduce decision costs and probably will increase the chance of a decisive judgment. Compared to flatly excluding lower-tier sources, lexical ordering probably yields higher quality decisions and decisiveness, but also higher decision costs. Whether the overall compromise seems tolerable depends on a series of debatable judgment calls. Moreover, the actual trade-offs depend on whether judges lexically order sources in their decision making, not only in their opinion writing. To date, we lack evidence either way.

The Article goes on to report results from a new vignette experiment conducted with approximately one-hundred appellate judges. These judges showed curiously mixed success at lexical ordering. In a trade name case, we find little evidence that judges were improperly influenced by legislative history. In an election law case, by contrast, we find evidence that judges were improperly influenced by an agency’s position. There is much more to learn about the patterns of judicial behavior in this field. For now, we should expect mixed judicial success at achieving the mixed advantages and disadvantages of lexical ordering. The hard trade-offs cannot be casually assumed or ignored. With that unsettling lesson, more courts might abandon lexical ordering’s complex and sometimes fragile architecture—or at least maintain respect for judges who are committed to less orthodox, more extreme, and simpler methods for deciding statutory cases.

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