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Today In Statutory Interpretation


I’m agnostic about the outcome in today’s other case, Yates v. U.S.  But two passages from Kagan’s dissent are worth quoting.  This is the one that will get the attention:

While the plurality starts its analysis with §1519’s heading, see ante, at 10 (“We note first §1519’s caption”), I would begin with §1519’s text. When Congress has not supplied a definition, we generally give a statutory term its ordinary meaning. As the plurality must acknowledge, the ordinary meaning of “tangible object” is “a discrete thing that possesses physical form.” A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form. See generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960). So the ordinary meaning of the term “tangible object” in §1519, as noone here disputes, covers fish (including too-small red grouper).

But with respect to a certain other case the Supreme Court will be hearing next month, this paragraph is more relevant:

That is not necessarily the end of the matter; I agree with the plurality (really, who does not?) that context matters in interpreting statutes. We do not “construe the meaning of statutory terms in a vacuum.” Tyler v. Cain, 533 U. S. 656, 662 (2001) . Rather, we interpret particular words “in their context and with a view to their place in the overall statutory scheme.” Davis v. Michigan Dept. of Treasury, 489 U. S. 803, 809 (1989) . And sometimes that means, as the plurality says, that the dictionary definition of a disputed term cannot control. See, e.g., Bloate v. United States, 559 U. S. 196, n. 9 (2010). But this is not such an occasion, for here the text and its context point the same way. Stepping back from the words “tangible object” provides only further evidence that Congress said what it meant and meant what it said.

This a concise explanation for why the ACA’s opponents needed to invent a fantasy alternate history of the statute. Nobody really disputes that statutory language has to be read in the context of the structure and purpose of the statute as a whole, and doing so yields a clear answer.  Even if the isolated phrase “Exchange established by the State” represents a “glitch” — as the troofers themselves thought before their constitutional challenge failed and they needed another straw to grasp at — then the case is over; the I.R.S was doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, interpreting the statute as not being at war with itself. Hence “the Moops invaded Spain,” only that reading makes no sense on its face and is inconsistent with the understanding of all relevant actors. (And while we are of course bound by what Congress enacted, not by what by what members of Congress subjectively intended, the actual views of the people who drafted and voted for the legislation are certainly relevant evidence when determining the purpose of the statutory scheme.)

…I should be clear that I’m just quoting Kagan to illustrate a point.  In terms of whether this reveals anything about how King v. Burwell will actually be decided, I’m definitely on Team Bagenstos:

I should note, however, that Brianne Gorod sees reason for optimism.

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