Federal Sentencing Guidelines and the Rehnquist Court: Theories of Statutory Interpretation

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The Rehnquist Court is possibly "the most activist Court in our history on issues of statutory interpretation."(1) Nonetheless, the Rehnquist Court consistently utilizes traditional statutory interpretation techniques, such as legislative history and Congressional reports, to assist the Court in many of its statutory construction tasks.(2) This, however, has been tempered by Justice Antonin Scalia, who vehemently opposes the use of these "traditional" interpretation tools. Justice Scalia, who favors a "textualist" approach, actively opposes using sources outside the text of a statute the Court is interpreting.(3)

With respect to the United States Sentencing Guidelines and other federal sentence enhancement provisions, the Rehnquist Court has followed generally the "traditional" approach to statutory interpretation; however, because of the strong textualist influence on the Court, at least one recent decision interpreting a federal sentencing statute was construed from a textualist perspective.(4) This Note will analyze the Rehnquist Court's statutory interpretation jurisprudence as it applies to the United States Sentencing Guidelines and other federal sentence enhancement provisions. This Note argues that the Rehnquist Court will continue to interpret sentencing statutes utilizing "traditional" statutory interpretation techniques; however, a strong textualist influence will remain.

Part II will discuss briefly both the "traditional" and "textualist" philosophies of statutory interpretation. Part II will also discuss the "rule of lenity," which is important in construing ambiguous criminal statutes. Part III will analyze the statutory interpretation philosophies of the various sitting Supreme Court Justices. Part IV will analyze select recent Supreme Court cases involving the interpretation of the Sentencing Guidelines and other federal sentence enhancement provisions. Finally, Part V will discuss recent federal courts of appeals decisions interpreting provisions of the Sentencing Guidelines, and will predict how the current Supreme Court will decide these cases--if, and when, they are presented before the Court.


"Originalism"--the attempt of the judiciary to determine the meaning that the drafters of a statute intended--has been the focus of many of the statutory interpretation techniques for the past century.(5) The "intent of the legislature" evaluation is the most often cited criterion for statutory interpretation in the leading treatise on the subject.(6) There are various techniques of discerning the original intent of a statute. Generally, statutory interpretation techniques can be divided into two categories: textualism and the traditional approach.

A. Textualism

The "textualist" philosophy of statutory interpretation--embraced by Justice Antonin Scalia--focuses on the "plain meaning" of the language of a statute.(7) Once the court has determined a statute's plain meaning, consideration of the statute's legislative history is irrelevant.(8) Textualist philosophy holds, in the words of Justice Scalia, "[t]he text is the law, and it is the text that must be observed."(9)

Under Justice Scalia's "new textualism," legislative history should not be used even to discern the "apparent" meaning of a statutory text.(10) Instead, a "plain meaning" approach to statutory interpretation requires a detailed examination of what the statute says, and this technique must be consistently applied.(11) One problem with the textualist approach to statutory interpretation is that often textualists will refer to outside sources, such as dictionaries, to discern the definitions of statutory terms.(12)

In A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law, Justice Scalia distinguishes his "textualism" theory from "strict constructionism."(13) Justice Scalia describes strict constructionism as "a degraded form of textualism that brings the whole philosophy into disrepute. …


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