Last modified on November 10, 2021, at 01:25


Purposivism is a theory of statutory interpretation that emphasizes the intent or purpose of the drafters of the legislation or constitution, as reflected in the legislative history. In other words, purposivism relies heavily on statutory purpose in interpreting it. The leading purposivist on the Supreme Court is Stephen Breyer.

Purposivism is contrasted with the growing support for textualism, which emphasizes the text of a statute rather than inquiring into its purpose, and the continued support for originalism, which emphasizes how a constitution was understood by the People when ratified.

The leading precedent for purposivism is Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States.[1] As one law professor says, "I tell my students that Holy Trinity Church is the case you always cite when the statutory text is hopelessly against you ...."[2]


  1. 143 U.S. 457 (1892).
  2. Philip P. Frickey, From the Big Sleep to the Big Heat: The Revival of Theory in Statutory Interpretation, 77 Minn. L. Rev. 241, 247 (1992).