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Legal Interpretation

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at Balkinization about whether theories of interpretation matter. For example, see the posts of Brian Tamanaha and Sandy Levinson.

I’ve always wondered about a related question. The judiciary adheres to stare decisis for many principles of law, but it seems to allow a free-for-all when it comes to interpretative method. Interpretative method (for both the Constitution as well as statutes) is left to the discretion of each individual judge or justice. So one judge might be an originalist, another might be a textualist, and yet another might adhere to the “living constitution.” On the Supreme Court, for example, its institutional opinions — those of the majority — seem to shift from one interpretative method to another depending upon which justice authors that opinion. Why isn’t the method of constitutional or statutory interpretation governed by stare decisis?

Stare decisis is justified based on the need for stability and consistency in the law. We frequently hear lofty pronouncements by courts about the great value of precedent. But these same values that underpin and justify stare decisis seemingly also apply to interpretative method. Wouldn’t constitutional law be more stable and consistent if all the justices were to adhere to stare decisis about what method (originalism, textualism, etc.) should be used to interpret the Constitution? Why not bind justices in this way?

Of course, if methods of interpretation don’t matter in the end, if cases are just decided on ideology and interpretative methods and theories are just elaborate window-dressing, then my question doesn’t matter all that much. But if these methods do carry some influence or weight, if they do matter at all, then why do they remain so unsettled? Why not bind them with stare decisis? Perhaps justices might feel too constrained. If Justice Thomas couldn’t be an originalist because of stare decisis, would this impinge upon his own individual prerogative, his unique judicial style? But stare decisis is about constraining justices based on what past justices have decided. So why not bind justices in this manner?

Is there a good argument for why stare decisis should not apply to interpretative method?

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

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