The Enacted Purposes Canon

By Stack, Kevin M. | Iowa Law Review, November 2019 | Go to article overview

The Enacted Purposes Canon


Stack, Kevin M., Iowa Law Review


I. Introduction

"We cannot interpret federal statutes to negate their own stated purposes."1 The Supreme Court relied on this principle in King v. Burwell2 after a careful recitation of the Affordable Care Act's ("ACA('s)") enacted aims and policies.3 This Article's core argument is that this principle-which I call the enacted purposes canon-is and should be viewed as a bedrock principle of statutory interpretation.

Many federal statutes include an enacted statement of the statute's purpose. These enacted purposes are part of the enacted text of the statute -they follow the statute's enacting clause,4 often at the beginning of the statute under a separate heading or combined with findings or statements of policy. Like statutory definitions, enacted purposes purport to speak to the entire statute.

For decades, the Supreme Court has relied upon enacted purposes in statutory interpretation but has done so without calling attention to its practice as an interpretive choice.5 As a result, each instance is easy to miss, and the overall patterns of reliance are even harder to see. Reconstructing the Court's practice reveals that it has long relied on enacted purposes to exclude interpretations inconsistent with those purposes. In a sense, there already is an enacted purposes canon; the Court just has not expressly identified it as such. Moreover, the enacted purposes principle has strong justifications. At the most basic level, the enactment of a statement of purpose changes the range of permitted meanings of a statute; as part of the enacted text, these provisions exclude interpretations inconsistent with them, just as the adoption of a rationale for a rule excludes applications of the rule inconsistent with that rationale. Because Congress generally adopts broad purposes provisions even when it accommodates special interests in other parts of the legislation, interpreting statutes in light of their enacted purposes excludes some private-regarding interpretations in favor of more publicregarding constructions. In addition, the canon has the pragmatic virtue of being a point of common ground between textualist and purposivist approaches to statutory interpretation. on the one hand, it satisfies textualism's core commitment to privileging the enacted text.6 These purposes are part of the statutory text. On the other hand, it reflects the core commitment of purposivism that the specific provisions of statutes be interpreted in light of their more general purposes.7 It insists that general purposes constrain more specific provisions. This overlap is not just theoretical: The principle has been relied upon by jurists with very different perspectives on statutory interpretation8-suggesting its prospects for emerging as a consensus plank on a closely divided Supreme Court. Based both on the Court's pattern of reliance and these justifications, this principle warrants recognition as its own canon of interpretation.

The enacted purposes canon, once made explicit, has implications for judicial review of agency action as well as for statutory drafting and our statutory culture. When a court reviews an agency's action, this principle operates to exclude agency interpretations of statutes that are inconsistent with the statute's enacted purposes-a particularly important constraint when the president's policies are in tension with many existing regulatory statutes' purposes. Uncovering this bedrock principle of statutory interpretation also shows what conventional advice on legislative drafting gets wrong: Enacted purpose provisions can be powerful tools for entrenching a policy. More generally, express recognition of this canon reorients statutory practice. By requiring a focus on the purpose provision of individual public laws, the enacted purposes canon serves as a potent reminder that statutory interpretation must remain focused on construing individual statutes, as messy and diverse as they are, not making inferences from a legislative code. …

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