William Baude on the 'Plain Meaning Rule"

If the statutory language is ‘plain,’ judges will not consider ____
William Baude
The Volokh Conspiracy
July 10, 2017

A frequent maxim of statutory interpretation is the so-called “plain meaning” rule — that judges should consider legislative history, statutory purpose, the statute’s title and whatever else, if and only if the text’s meaning is unclear. When the text is clear or plain, by contrast, you begin and end with the text.

Now I am a big believer in statutory text, so for a long time I have accepted this kind of thing pretty uncritically, but I think it turns out to have a puzzling structure once you think about it. Why should so much hinge on whether the text is “plain” or not? Why not have analogous rules of law for plain texts and for less plain ones?

Ryan Doerfler and I now have an article reconstructing and critiquing this use of “plain” meaning, called The (Not So) Plain Meaning Rule, out in the University of Chicago Law Review.

William Baude