In the latest round of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the country got a doozy’s worth of linguistic throwdowns from Antonin Scalia, the Court’s longest-serving and possibly most-crotchety justice. His dissenting opinion in King v. Burwell, a ruling on a clause in the Affordable Care Act, referred to the majority’s reasoning as both “jiggery-pokery” and “pure applesauce.” His objection, he wrote, was that the majority relied on an interpretation of the legislative intent behind the law, instead of relying on the text of the law itself. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the Court’s opinion, “It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner,” to which Scalia replied, in brief, “Words no longer have meaning.”
Scalia was in the minority in this opinion, but on Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the former Acting Solicitor General of the United States, Neal Katyal, said the justice has actually largely won over the Court on the question of statutory interpretation.
Justice Scalia has this view that when Congress passes a law, you read the text of the law, but you don’t read all the legislative history around it. Why? He says that’s often doctored, it’s advocates trying to get their particular views in committee reports. He has won that debate. He has persuaded a majority of the Court to do that.
This position is widely debated within the legal community, and it’s it’s likely that other Court-watchers have a different interpretation of Scalia’s degree of influence. Katyal also argued that Scalia ended up in the minority in King and other recent decisions because he is urging the other justices to ignore both the legislative history and intent behind laws. Legislative history includes all documents that were produced by Congress during the process of a bill becoming a law. Intent is the meaning and effect that legislators presumably wanted a law to have when they were writing it. Here’s Katyal again:
Now, he’s gone further, though, saying, “Just read the text, don’t try to understand the purpose behind the text.” That’s a losing argument. So we’re seeing sometimes Justice Scalia overplaying his hand and reaching results that aren’t going to command a majority of the Court.
For an Obama-appointed government official, Katyal sang the Reagan-appointed justice’s praises pretty sweetly. “Justice Scalia is brilliant,” he said. “One of President Reagan’s greatest legacies will be Justice Scalia. He’s changed the game in so many areas.”