One of the most important topics in legal theory is “legal interpretation,” the theory of the derivation of meaning from legal texts. Of course, legal interpretation is a very large topic, with several different dimensions and approaches. This post will focus on “textualism,” and provide some introductory ideas about interpretive theory in general. As always, the Legal Theory Lexicon is designed for law students—especially first year law students—with an interest in legal theory.
Four Levels of Interpretive Theory
I find it helpful to separate out four different “levels” at which theories of legal interpretation can operate:
Level One: Meta Theories of Interpretation—One kind of theory examines questions like, “What does ‘interpretation’ mean?,” "What is interpretation?," and “How is ‘interpretation’ possible?”
Level Two: Communicative Theories of Interpretation--A second kind of theory aims at the recovery of the linguistic meaning (or "communicative content") of a text.
Level Three: Normative Theories of Interpretation—A third kind of theory addresses the normative question, “What should legal interpretations (or constructions) aim at?” Among the answers to this question are: (a) the morally best reading of the legal text; (b) the intentions of the authors of the legal text, and (c) the plain meaning of the legal text.
Level Four: Methodological Theories of Interpretation—A fourth kind of theory aims to provide practical advice to legal actors (judges, lawyers, administrative officials, and citizens) about the techniques they can use to interpret various types of legal texts.
Textualism, the subject of this post, can operate at the second, third, or fourth levels. That is, textualism could be the view that what legal texts really mean (as a "fact of the matter") is their plain meaning. Or textualism could be the view that legal interpreters ought to adopt constructions of legal texts that correspond to their plain meaning, even if that does not correspond to the linguistic meaning or communicative content of the text.. Or textualism could simply be a practical technique—a method that judges should employ. In this post, the primary focus will be on levels two and three—textualism as a semantic or normative theory—with some discussion of level four (textualism as practical methodology).
The Plain Meaning of the Text
Let’s begin with a basic question: what do we mean when we say “the plain meaning of the text.” A really good answer to that question would require us to develop a theory of meaning in general, but we must avoid that enterprise--at least for the purposes of this post. At one level, the idea of plain meaning is pretty simple. The plain meaning of a legal text is the meaning that would be understood by regular folks who were competent speakers of the language and who knew that they were reading a statute (or court decision, etc.).
But this preliminary formulation is too simple. Some laws are meant for all citizens (e.g., criminal statutes) and some are meant only for specialists (e.g., some sections of the tax code). A text that means one thing in a legal context, might mean something else if it were in a technical manual or a novel. So the plain meaning of a legal text is something like the meaning that would be understood by competent speakers of the natural language in which the text was written who are within the intended readership of the text and who understand that the text is a legal text of a certain type.
What "Plain Meaning" Is Not
Another way to understand plain meaning is to contrast this idea with others. Here are some:
- Literal Meaning. The literal meaning of a text is provided by its semantic content alone, with no consideration of context. Literal meaning is sparser than plain meaning, because the conventional semantic meaning of many words and phrases is very sparse, with contextual disambiguation or precisification enriching the plain meaning.
- Purposive Meaning. Sometimes we use the word "meaning" to represent the purpose for which a text was written. Purposive interpretation is a rival of textualism.
- Reasonable Meaning: The plain meaning of a text may not be the best meaning (from the perspective of some policy goal or normative theory). The plain meaning of a text may not be the "reasonable"or "desirable" meaning.
An Excursion into Speakers Meaning and Sentence Meaning
Textualism can be illuminated by an excursion into what is sometimes called speech act theory, and in particular, by looking at the concepts of “speaker’s meaning” and “sentence meaning.”
Speaker’s Meaning and Sentence Meaning
This idea of plain meaning assumes a distinction that can be formulated in terms of the difference between speaker’s meaning and sentence meaning. The speaker’s meaning of a given utterance (or author’s meaning of a given text) is the meaning that the speaker intended the audience to glean for the utterance (or text). This involves a reflexive set of expectations. What does that mean? When I write a text, I understand that the readers know certain things about my having authored the text. When I try to communicate, I take these expectations into account in deciding how to use language to communicate a certain meaning. For example, if I know that my readers know that I know that they know a particular convention, then I can use that convention to communicate to them. (By the way, there are no typos in the prior sentence, all those “knows” are in there for a reason.)
So when I blog, I know that the readers of blogs assign a particular meaning to the word “post,” and I also know that my readers know that I know that they know this blogospheric convention. So I can use the term “post” to refer to blog entries with confidence that my readers will understand what I mean. On the other hand, if I were writing about blogging for an audience that had never encountered a blog, I would probably need to define the term “post,” before I used it, and if I used the term “post” without defining it, then my audience might believe I was referring to mail and not blog entries.
In other words, when someone speaks or writes for a particular audience on a particular occasion, the speaker or author can take into account what she knows about the audience, what the audience knows about her, but only insofar as the speaker knows that the audience knows what the speaker knows about the audience.
Speaker’s meaning can be distinguished from sentence meaning. Sentence meaning is the meaning that an utterance has when the audience is unaware of the speaker’s intentions. When we identify sentence meaning, it is as if we were imaging a sot of generic speaker, who uttered the sentence in a generic context. Or putting this a bit differently, sentence meaning is the meaning we would assign sentences when we know that the speaker or author can’t assume that we are aware of special conventions about meaning.
Legal Texts, Sentence Meaning, & Speaker’s Meaning
Legal texts are sometimes intended for a timeless, generic readership. The authors of legislation, for example, know that many different actors (judges, lawyers, administrative officials, and ordinary citizens) will read the statute for an extended period of time in a variety of different conditions. Many of these readers will not be able to afford access to analysis of the legislative history of the statute; they will simply read the statute itself. Of course, they will know that the text they are reading is a statute, and they will therefore have a fair amount of knowledge about the likely intended meaning of various terms and phrases. Moreover, the legislature knows that the readers of statutes will have this knowledge. So it might make sense to assume that the speaker’s meaning that should be assigned to a legal text is a special version of the sentence meaning of the text, e.g. legal sentence meaning.
The Case for Textualism
If we view textualism as a semantic theory of interpretation, the question we need to ask is whether the plain meaning is the linguistic meaning of the text. There is no general answer to this question--it all depends on the nature of the text. Texts that are directed to a particular audience on a particular occasion may have speaker's meaning. But in general legal contexts that are directed to the public at large will have sentence meaning--that is, their meaning will be a function of the conventional semantic meaning of the text and not the intentions of a particular speaker.
But if we view textualism as a normative theory of interpretation, we need to ask to ask why interpreters of legal texts should aim for interpretations that yield that “plain meaning of the text.” The usual answer to this question is that plain meaning best serves the rule of law values of publicity, predictability, certainty, and stability of the law. One of the important rule of law values is publicity: the law should be accessible to ordinary citizens. Ordinary citizens are likely to interpret statutes to have their plain meaning, because ordinary folks rarely have the training to understand legislative history and even if they did have such training, it would simply be too costly to analyze the legislative history of statutes to determine their meaning.
Lawyers who counsel citizens and organizations do have the training to analyze legislative history, but can more easily and cheaply discern the plain meaning of a statute than some special meaning that only becomes clear once the legislative history is consulted. Moreover, analysis of legislative history can be quite complex, because some sources of legislative history (e.g. the statements of floor managers) are thought by some to be more reliable than others (e.g. the statements of opponents of a bill or of the author of a bill). Because of the complexity of statutory interpretation, lawyers are likely to disagree about the meaning of legislative history and to err when predicting how a court will interpret legislative history.
The same difficulties that afflict lawyers also plague judges. Moreover, most legal research done for federal judges is done by very young lawyers serving as law clerks. This group usually lacks experience in researching legislative history, and their performance is likely to be highly variable. Moreover, because legislative history will frequently contain many conflicting, ambiguous, and vague statements, it is possible that legislative history is easily subject to manipulation, giving judges the opportunity to support their own policy preferences with evidence of the “intentions of the legislature.”
Textualism as a Practical Methodology
Even if textualism does not provide the best semantic or normative theory of legal interpretation, it might be the case that textualism does provide the best practical method of interpretation given the capacities of real world judges and officials. Suppose that we want to interpret statutes to achieve the purposes of the legislature. At first blush, it might seem that the best way to do this would be to have courts and officials employ an intentionalist methodology, combing the legislative record for evidence of legislative intent. But as a practical matter, it may turn out that judges aren’t very good at doing this. So it might be the case that real-world judges are more likely to implement legislative purposes by employing a fairly simple plain-meaning approach as methodology for statutory interpretation. And to the extent that legislators know that judges will employ this approach, legislators could draft with the expectation that judges will use a plain-meaning methodology, which presumably would lead to even closer fit between the plain meaning and the achievement of legislative purpose.
“Textualism” is just one of many approaches to the theory of legal interpretation, but it is an especially good place to begin thinking about issues of interpretation in law. One of the very best ways to become a sophisticated thinker about these issues is to take a really good course in statutory interpretation. Not so long ago, statutory interpretation was considered a dead field, but today there is a tremendous flowering of interesting and exciting scholarship about the interpretation of statutes. I hope that this post has whetted your appetite!
Related Legal Theory Lexicon Entries
- Legal Theory Lexicon 019: Originalism
- Legal Theory Lexicon 022: Intention
- Legal Theory Lexicon 043: Formalism and Instrumentalism
- Legal Theory Lexicon 051: Vagueness and Ambiguity
- Legal Theory Lexicon 063: Interpretation and Construction
- Legal Theory Lexicon 071: The New Originalism
- John Manning, Textualism as a Nondelegation Doctrine
- Lawrence B. Solum, Semantic Originalism
- William Treanor, Against Textualism
- Textualism, Wikipedia
- Textualism, Encyclopedia of the United States Supreme Court, by Candidus Dougherty
(Last revised on January 21, 2018.)