Dissenting today in West Virginia v. EPA, Justice Kagan writes: “Some years ago, I remarked that “[w]e’re all textualists now.” Harvard Law School, The Antonin Scalia Lecture Series: A Dialogue with Justice Elena Kagan on the Reading of Statutes (Nov. 25, 2015). It seems I was wrong. The current Court is textualist only when being so suits it.”
This term surely proves the point. The “normal” mode of textual analysis we see from Justices like Justice Gorsuch begin with the words of a statute, often read in the context of surrounding text, looking to dictionaries and other tools of ordinary meaning. And the approach avoids relying on legislative history as unreliable or even unconstitutional. The larger debate over textualism and the flaws in it are well covered in the late Judge Bob Katzmann’s excellent book, “Judging Statutes.”
But put aside that debate for today and take textualism on its own terms. In today’s EPA case, like the Supreme Court’s earlier ruling saying OSHA had no authority to require covid vaccines in larger workplaces, show that the conservative Justices are fair weathered textualists. In both cases, they don’t turn to dictionaries to figure out if the relevant agency has the authority from Congress to take on key issues in its area (EPA to deal with climate change threats from greenhouse gases and in OSHA the authority to regulate workplace safety).
Instead, the Justices pull a rabbit out of a hat and avoid the words of the statute almost in their entirety. How do to so? Textualists have adopted certain “canons” or rules of thumb to decide cases. Many of these canons are about how to read punctuation and grammar (like the last antecedent rule). But there are also “substantive canons” that put a thumb on the scale when it comes to interpreting cases. A rule for example that says to read criminal statutes leniently to favor criminal defendants is one example, because of constitutional protections for criminal defendants. Justice Scalia, who claimed to be an avid textualist, said that such canons cause whole a lot of trouble for an honest textualist. (I wrote a lot about this in a chapter in my book on Justice Scalia, The Justice of Contradictions.)
Today, as in the OSHA case, the Court pulls a rabbit out of a hat using what it now calls the “major questions doctrine.” It says that on big issues, the presumption is—even if Congress’s language is broad and wide as in these two cases—that Congress did NOT delegate the power to the agency to regulate a big issue. Congress has to be really clear and specific — again, even if as in the EPA and OSHA cases, there is a broad general grant of authority.
Why this substantive canon? It comes from the value judgments of the conservative Justices and from nowhere else. These justices are skeptical of broad administrative power, and of executive power generally. These justices know that in a closely divided Congress, its rulings like this will stymie legislative action on issues like climate change or preventing the spread of Covid. And they are fine with that.
You don’t pull a rabbit out of a hat as a judge unless it gets you somewhere. And this gets the justices to the ideological position they like. So much for honest textualism.