Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

The Rise of Purposivism and Fall of Chevron: Major Statutory Cases in the Supreme Court

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

The Rise of Purposivism and Fall of Chevron: Major Statutory Cases in the Supreme Court

Article excerpt

In 1994, Professor Thomas Merrill observed the simultaneous rise of two phenomena dominating the Supreme Court's statutory interpretation jurisprudence: textualism and Chevron (1) deference. (2) Times have changed. Although most commentators reflexively characterize the Roberts Court as a textualist Court, it has recently betrayed a purposivist orientation in major statutory cases. And although Chevron remains good law, the Court has recently spurned the framework in major cases involving agency statutory interpretations.

Some scholars have noted either the move toward purposivism or away from Chevron, (3) but this Note explores the connection between these two patterns. It argues that Chief Justice Roberts is the catalyst of

both trends and proposes three explanations for their confluence: first, an inclination toward judicial empowerment; second, an effort to respect congressional will; and third, an impulse to afford major cases special treatment. These three explanations are equally plausible and in no way mutually exclusive, but the third carries the most problematic normative consequences.

This Note proceeds in three parts. Part I explores statutory interpretation in the Roberts Court and argues that the Court, led by the Chief Justice, has moved toward purposivism in major cases. Part II contends that this move has coincided with a shift away from Chevron deference in major cases, also led by the Chief Justice. Part III examines common threads between the rise of purposivism and fall of Chevron.


A. An Overview of Interpretive Methods

Scholars associate traditional purposivism with Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States. (4) There, the Court held that a statute prohibiting the importation of a foreigner "to perform labor or service of any kind in the United States" did not apply to a church's importation of a British pastor. (5) In so holding, the Court conceded that the "letter" of the statute clearly encompassed the pastor but found that its "spirit"--evidenced through "the circumstances surrounding its enactment," "the intention of its makers," and the "results which follow from [a broad reading]" (6)--suggested that Congress intended it to apply only to manual laborers. (7) Because of the "familiar rule" that a statute's "spirit" trumps its "letter," the Court explained, the statute could not be read to cover the pastor. (8) Holy Trinity purposivism, therefore, jettisons the text's literal meaning and affords controlling weight to (1) public knowledge of the circumstances surrounding enactment (what this Note calls legislative backdrop); and (2) the policy consequences of possible interpretations.

Yet most purposivists have abandoned Holy Trinity. The Court has not cited the case positively in over two decades, (9) and it has become a much-maligned symbol of judicial activism. (10) Holy Trinity purposivism has given way to a new brand of purposivism that places greater weight on the text's semantic meaning. (11) This method is sometimes called legal process purposivism because of its close link to the legal process theory espoused by Professors Henry Hart and Albert Sacks, which posits that judges should view statutes as the products of reasonable legislators seeking to advance reasonable goals through reasonable means. (12) Legal process purposivism still maintains that interpretation requires "attribution of purpose" but acknowledges that "semantic meaning of the text casts light--perhaps the most important light--on the purposes to be attributed." (13) Textualism has also evolved over time. Early textualism prioritized the literal meaning of a given provision and often failed to appreciate the importance of context. (14) But modern textualism is a highly "sophisticated theory of interpretation which readily acknowledges that the meaning of words depends on the context in which they are used. …

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