Faculty Blog Hosts Debate on Malani's "Ambiguity about Ambiguity" Paper

Mobblog Examines Questions of Legal Interpretation
The Faculty Blog
April 26, 2010

Here at Chicago, we love nothing more than a good debate, and this extends to the Faculty Blog as well. This week we're featuring a conversation about Professor of Law and Aaron Director Research Scholar Anup Malani's paper "Ambiguity about Ambiguity: An Empirical Inquiry into Legal Interpretation." Along with Prof. Malani, the debate will feature Malani's co-author, Ward Farnsworth '94 (Boston University), Professor Einer Elhauge (Harvard), Professor William Eskridge (Yale), Chicago's own Judge Richard Posner and Judge Frank Easterbrook '73, and Judge Stephen Williams (D.C. Circuit).

The abstract of Anup's paper is below, and you can download the complete paper here

Most scholarship on statutory interpretation discusses what courts should do with ambiguous statutes. This paper investigates the crucial and analytically prior question of what ambiguity in law is. Does a claim that a text is ambiguous mean the reader is uncertain about its meaning? Or is it a claim that readers, as a group, would disagree about what the text means (however certain each of them may be individually)? This distinction is of considerable theoretical interest. It also turns out to be highly consequential as a practical matter.

To demonstrate, we developed a survey instrument for exploring determinations of ambiguity and administered it to nearly 1,000 law students. We find that different ways of asking whether a statute is ambiguous produce very different answers. Simply asking respondents whether a statute is “ambiguous” as applied to a set of facts produces answers that are strongly biased by the policy preferences of those giving the answers. But asking respondents whether they would expect others to agree about the meaning of the statute does not produce answers biased in this way. This discrepancy leads to important questions about which of those two ways of thinking about ambiguity is more legally relevant. It also has potential implications for how cases are decided and for how law is taught.

Anup Malani
Richard A. Posner