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The New Textualism and Normative Canons, 113 Columbia Law Review 531 (2013)


In Reading Law, Justice Scalia and his coauthor, Professor Bryan Garner, promise that text-based, statutory interpretation can be rendered more predictable and constraining if 57 "valid canons" are followed. Admiring the enterprise, this Review maintains that this regime would not solve the problems of unpredictability or judicial policymaking Reading Law identifies. For any difficult case, there will be as many as twelve to fifteen relevant "valid canons" cutting in different directions, leaving considerable room for judicial cherry-picking. Another problem afflicts their enterprise. Almost all of Scalia and Garner's "valid canons" are, rather than strictly textualist, either explic itly grounded upon a normative precept or dependent on norms that re quire an assessment of a statute's purpose to determine its application. Justice Scalia's new textualism insists that judges avoid value judg ments—but the Scalia and Garner canons make value judgments inevi table. Indeed, canons-based textualism would (if widely followed) be strongly undemocratic. We now have evidence that congressional draft ers are not aware of most of Scalia and Garner's canons—and several of their canons are rules that Congress cannot follow when enacting com plicated legislation. This Review concludes with a defense of the wide variety of canons actually followed by the Supreme Court. No valid approach to statutory interpretation can ignore the precedent-based canons or neglect the legis lative history and purpose canons that the Court has long followed. Un fortunately, no canons-based regime will deliver complete predictability, judicial constraint, or fair results, but the multifactored regime followed by the Court is the best that mere judges can devise.

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