Legal Interpretation: A Skeptic’s Guide to Statutory Construction
1. The Application-as-Interpretation Principle
The application of a law to a particular case is an interpretation. “A sentence that seems to need no interpretation is already the product of one.” Stanley Fish
This principle is not found in traditional textbooks. It is based on new researches in linguistic and literary theory which have been imported into legal theory. The modern view is that language is made up of signs which are composed of a signifier and a signified. The relationship between this signifier (sound) and signified (meaning) is not fixed and meaning is produced only by difference between signifiers. We only recognize the difference between a cat and a dog because of the difference between the sound or word “dog” from “cat.” But the word “dog” has no inherent relation to that four-legged animal we often see making love on the sidewalk.
When this view of language is applied to legal interpretation, it may now be argued that there is no law whose meaning is “clear” and calls only for application. Words may have several literal meanings and readers only choose “the meaning” within the context of a particular sentence. This process of choosing the “literal” meaning is but an interpretation of the text.
As a consequence, the maxim that tells us “Where the law is clear and free from ambiguity, there is no room for construction or interpretation” should now be confined to the archives. It has no practical value except that it is often used as a rhetorical ploy to insist that one’s interpretation is superior to other readings. Those who use this maxim seem to argue that they are merely applying and not interpreting the law. The assumption of course is that the law is superior to its interpretation as if one can apply the law without interpreting it. Theoretically speaking, this assumption is no longer acceptable. As Frank E. Horack Jr. would say, “ If a specific statute is applied to a specific case there must in every instance be interpretation.”
Indeed, even a sentence whose literal meaning is “obvious” is in itself a product of an act of interpretation. Stanley Fish, a Professor of English Literature and Law at Duke University, writes: “I want to argue that there always is a text…but that what is in it can change, and therefore at no level is it independent of and prior to interpretation.” He adds: “A sentence is never not in a context. A statute is never not read in the light of some purpose. A set of interpretive assumptions is always in force.” In other words, we are always interpreting. Hence, when we say that Manny Pacquiao, who will not yet be 40 years old in 2016, cannot run for President, it is because we have interpreted the Constitution in a literal manner. When we read the line “No person may be elected president unless he is…at least forty years of age on the day of the election”, we exclude the possibility of using the Islamic, Russian Orthodox and Chinese calendars, not to mention the French Revolutionary Calendar in determining who is qualified under this provision. This process of exclusion is interpretation. Let us now study how our judges have used the maxim which we mentioned above. In the case of Francisco v. House of Representatives (2003), the Supreme Court first tried to make sense of what “to initiate” means. The Constitution provides: Section 3. (1) The House of Representatives shall have the exclusive power to initiate all cases of impeachment. (5) No impeachment proceedings shall be initiated against the same official more than once within a period of one year.
As usual, simplicity breeds complexity. The word “initiate” was construed in four ways: 1. For Commissioner Regalado Maambong, it means “to file the verified complaint”; 2. for Justice Florenz Regalado and Father Joaquin Bernas, “to file” with “Congressional action”; 3. for the House of Representatives, the...
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