Textualism

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Textualism is an approach to the interpretation of statutes and the U.S. Constitution that focuses on the text itself and its plain meaning rather than inquiring into the purpose of those who wrote the text. Under this view the legislative history of a statute is insignificant and should not be allowed to trump the text itself.

In the words of the leading proponent of textualism, Justice Antonin Scalia, statutory text always trumps "unenacted legislative intent."[1]

Other leading textualists are Justice Clarence Thomas and Seventh Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook.

The term "textualism" was originally coined by Justice Robert Jackson in his famous concurrence in Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952), which became more influential than the Court opinion. Later, this term was used by a liberal commentator in an unsuccessful attempt to embarrass it.[2] An older form of textualism was the "plain meaning" doctrine.

A classic description of textualism, without using the term itself, is Justice Scalia's concurrence in Hirschey v. Federal Energy Regulatory Com., 777 F.2d 1 (D.C. Cir. Nov. 15, 1985).

Textualism is often contrasted with purposivism. Other competing legal doctrines include Critical Legal Studies.

References

  1. INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 453 (1987) (Scalia, J., concurring)
  2. William N. Eskridge, Jr., The New Textualism, 37 UCLA L. Rev. 621, 623 (1990) (under the doctrine of textualism, "once the Court has ascertained a statute's plain meaning, consideration of legislative history becomes irrelevant").
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