April 4, 2012
Interpreting statutes is never simple and sometimes even problematic; there are several reasons for this. First is because the United States does not have a generally accepted and consistent applied theory for interpreting statues. Second, statutes are written and the texts used to write the statutes are sometimes vague, or the text might be outdated and have a new meaning. Finally, interpreting statutes are sometimes problematic because the entire statute might have been constructed vaguely and left open to interpretation. The problems with statutory interpretations caused many legal scholars to debate on what method is best suited for interpreting statues. Two prestigious Supreme Court Justices provided their opinion on what method is best suited for interpreting statues as well. Justice Scalia praises textualism, in which “one need not be too dull to perceive the border social purposes that a statute is designed, or could be designed, to serve; or too hidebound to realize that new times require new laws. One need only hold the belief that judges have no authority to pursue those broader purposes or write those new laws” Justice Breyer praises legislative history, in which one reviews and analyzes “the statements made in the floor debates, committees reports, and even committee testimony, leading up to the enactment of the legislation.” Given the fact that statutes are sometimes ambiguous, the use of legislative history is occasionally needed in order to resolve statutory conflicts, and this is why the use of legislative history should never be completely abandoned. .
The use of legislative history to resolve statutory conflicts is often criticized because of three main reasons, but not one reason provides a strong enough argument to completely abandon the use of legislative history. First, critics are afraid that Judges will use legislative history to support their personal opinions instead of following and applying the actual written statute. Second, critics claim that the use of legislative history makes the “legislative history” the “law” instead of the actual statue, which violates the Unites States Constitution. The last main argument against the use of legislative history to resolve statutory conflicts is the problem with congressional intent. Critics claim that “congressional/ legislative intent” does not exists and that trying to find it in legislative history is counterproductive. Scalia makes all of these arguments against the use of legislative history as well and tries to provide adequate examples of them in actual Court decisions.
Justice Scalia tried his best to denigrate the use of legislative history with his analysis of the Supreme Court case Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892). In Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, the Court interpreted a federal statue that criminalized the action of assisting or encouraging the importation or migration of any alien into the United States, to perform labor or services of any kind in the United States. The Court looked at legislative history and learned that the statue was intended to prevent only foreigners who specialized in some sort of labor from entering the United States. Ultimately the Court decided that a minister was a foreigner but that a minister does not provide any labor services; so the Church of Holy Trinity did not violate the statute by bring a foreign minister into the United States. Scalia stated, “the statutory interpretation adopted by the Court in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 produced a desirable result; and it may even be that it produced the unexpressed result actually intended by Congress…” this statement shows that Scalia was displeased with the Court usage of legislative history but also shows that legislative history can correct some drafting errors made by congress.
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