Textualists have long decried the problems associated with non-textualist statutory interpretation. To prevent judges from interpretating statutes by reference to sources of authority besides the text of the statute, textualists have attempted to convince them such interpretive methods are imprudent. However, what if there is another way to get judges to eschew non-textual interpretive methods? What if Congress simply told judges they have to interpret statutes it passes according to the plain meaning of their text?
Contract law shows how Congress could do this. Many contracts contain integration clauses (a.k.a. merger clauses). When a contract contains an integration clause, it instructs judges that the contract is the complete and final agreement between the parties. The purpose of this provision is to prevent a court interpreting the contract from looking outside the four corners of the document to inform its interpretation.
Congress should include a provision analogous to a contractual integration clause in statutes—a statutory integration clause, if you will. Such a provision would instruct courts to interpret statutes only according to the text within the four corners of the statute. And it would prevent judges from using other sources of authority—such as legislative intent—when interpreting a statute. A statutory integration clause would look something like this:
This statute is the culmination of Congress’s intent to act regarding the subject matter herein. It supersedes any and all prior expressions of intent by this body and/or its members. This statute must be construed according to the plain meaning of its text.
If Congress included statutory integration clauses in statutes, it would address the many problems textualists associate with non-textualist statutory interpretation. Consider the implications of such a provision:
Promote Democratic Governance. Statutes are the culmination of the democratic process—they are embodiments of majority will as enacted by Congress and the President. When courts look outside a statute to interpret its meaning, they undermine this democratic enactment. For example, if a court relies on a committee report to interpret a statute, they are not interpreting the statute according to the people’s will, but the will of a single congressional committee. Statutory integration clauses would prevent this from occurring, instructing courts only to interpret the statute according to the democratically enacted text of the statute.
Limit Judicial Discretion. Judges permitted to look outside a statute for sources of meaning are prone to selection bias—they may choose sources favoring their preferred outcome. Statutory integration clauses would limit the sources of authority they can look to when interpreting statutes—they can only look to the plain meaning of a statute.
Public Reliance. The public can more readily rely on the plain meaning of statutes when judges are limited to interpreting them according to their text. Sources of unwritten intent are harder for the public to discern. Statutory integration clauses would prevent judges from relying on unwritten expressions of intent, which would enable the public to more readily rely on the enacted statute.
Decreased Litigation Time & Cost. Lawyers arguing before judges that find statutory meaning in places other than the plain meaning of the text must spend more time preparing arguments. However, if a statutory integration clause limits a judge to only construing a statute according to the plain meaning of its text, then lawyers would only need to prepare textual arguments for a case.
To be sure, Congress may have separation of powers concerns about instructing federal courts how to interpret statutes. Consider the following reasons why it need not worry about such concerns:
Courts Consider Themselves Faithful Agents of Congress When Interpreting Statutes. Proponents of both leading theories of statutory construction—purposivism and textualism—claim they faithfully enact Congress’s vision when interpreting statutes. Hence, there is no separation of powers problem with Congress telling courts to construct statutes according to Congress’s intent. A statutory integration clause merely makes Congress’s intent clear on how to construct a statute.
The Supreme Court Recognizes Congress’s Interpretations of its Statutes as Supreme. Congress can always amend a statute to supersede a construction given to it by federal courts. Thus, Congress’s interpretations of its own statutes are supreme. If federal courts recognize this, it follows that Congress is within its constitutional power to tell federal courts how to interpret statutes with statutory integration clauses.
Legislative Precedent. Congress has already statutes instructing courts how to construct statutes. Consider, for example, the Dictionary Act of 1871. The Supreme Court has cited the Dictionary Act seventeen times, tacitly acknowledging Congress’s ability to instruct courts how to interpret statutes. Another example is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), which instructs courts to construct it broadly. These statutes demonstrate Congress understands its power to include the ability to direct the judiciary how to interpret statutes.
Congress can require federal courts to interpret its statutes using textual methods by creating a statutory version of contractual integration clauses. Such an action would prevent judges from engaging in non-textualist statutory construction and prevent the problems with which it is associated.