Bench Memos

Scalia/Garner Proposition 2: The Supremacy-of-Text Principle

Part of a series on Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner

Text trumps purpose. That’s the core meaning of Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner’s second fundamental interpretive principle: “The words of a governing text are of paramount concern, and what they convey, in their context, is what the text means.”

As Scalia and Garner emphasize repeatedly, the meaning of text depends on context, which in turn “includes the purpose of the text.” So a carefully cabined consideration of purpose is a proper and inherent part of textualist analysis. But that cabining requires four limitations, which they elaborate. (The first is that the purpose “must be derived from the text, not from extrinsic sources such as legislative history or an assumption about the legal drafter’s desires.” Read the book for the others.)

As Scalia and Garner spell out elsewhere, the fallacy of the purposivist approach (in which purpose trumps text) is to “assume[] that legal instruments make complete sense” and perfectly achieve some discrete purpose. The textualist instead recognizes that “No text pursues its purpose at all costs” and that “the limitations of a text—what a text chooses not to do—are as much a part of its ‘purpose’ as its affirmative dispositions.”


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