State Courts and the Interpretation of Federal Statutes

By Bellia, Anthony J., Jr. | Vanderbilt Law Review, October 2006 | Go to article overview

State Courts and the Interpretation of Federal Statutes


Bellia, Anthony J., Jr., Vanderbilt Law Review


Scholars have long debated the separation of powers question of what "judicial power" federal courts have under Article III of the Constitution in the enterprise of interpreting federal statutes. Specifically, scholars have debated whether, in light of Founding-era English and state court judicial practice, the judicial power of the United States should be understood as a power to interpret statutes "dynamically" or as "faithful agents" of Congress. This Article argues that the question of how courts should interpret federal statutes is one not only of separation of powers but of federalism as well. State courts have a vital and often independent role in the American constitutional structure in interpreting federal statutes. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, state courts, though they interpreted state statutes equitably in certain cases, interpreted federal statutes only in ways designed to implement, as far as possible, the directives of Congress. This Article describes the practice of state courts in interpreting federal statutes during the first few decades after ratification, explains why state judges may have felt constrained not to interpret federal statutes equitably, and suggests possible implications of this analysis for the question of how federal courts should interpret federal statutes.

INTRODUCTION

In the debate over how federal courts should interpret federal statutes, "faithful agent" theories stand pitted against "dynamic" theories of statutory interpretation. The following questions lie at the heart of the debate: Is the proper role of federal courts to strive to implement the commands of the legislature-in other words, to act as Congress's faithful agents? Or, is the proper role of federal courts to act as partners with Congress in the forward-looking making of federal law-in other words, to interpret statutes dynamically? Proponents of faithful agent theories include both "textualists" and "purposivists." Textualists have argued that federal courts best fulfill their responsibility to serve as faithful agents of Congress by interpreting statutes according to the meaning that their texts most reasonably impart.1 Certain purposivists have argued that federal courts best fulfill their responsibility to act as faithful agents of Congress by interpreting statutes according to statutory purposes, even where those purposes might contradict the most reasonable import of statutory text.2 Proponents of dynamic theories of statutory interpretation reject the premise that federal courts should strive to act as faithful agents of Congress. Dynamicists cast federal courts as "cooperative partners" with Congress in the federal lawmaking enterprise, rather than as Congress's agents.3

Scholars have debated the constitutional legitimacy of these interpretive theories in separation of powers terms: Which interpretive methodology best comports with the federal "judicial power" of Article III4 relative to the federal "legislative powers" of Article I?5 Most notably, Professors William Eskridge and John Manning have debated whether, as a matter of original understandings of the constitutional structure, the Article III "judicial power" of federal courts is a power to interpret statutes as "faithful agents" of Congress, or as agents of "the People," empowered to establish federal policy in partnership with Congress.6

This Article argues that how courts ought to interpret federal statutes is not only a "horizontal" question of the separation of powers between federal courts and Congress, but also a "vertical" question of the proper relationship between Congress and state courts-in other words, a federalism question. State courts play an important, often independent, role in the interpretation of federal statutes. Accordingly, the question of how they ought to interpret federal statutes should figure prominently in federal statutory interpretation debates. The answer to this question does not depend on what, as a matter of separation of powers, constitutes the judicial power of the federal courts. …

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