Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Breyer and Scalia Debate Statutory Interpretation

The Blog of the Legal Times has a good account of a debate between Justice Breyer and Justice Scalia that was held last night at the Supreme Court History Society:

Breyer and Scalia challenged each other the most over statutory construction, with Scalia insisting that looking to the words of the law and nothing else is the best way to discern its meaning. That's because members of Congress actually vote for -- and can be held accountable for -- the actual text of the law, unlike committee reports and other documents drafted by "teenagers," to support their own views of the law, as Scalia put it with disdain. The legislators don't read those documents anyway, Scalia said. "Congress passes laws, not conference reports."

By that standard, Breyer replied, the words of the statute don't mean much either, because members of Congress don't read every word of the statute. A onetime Senate staffer, Breyer was far more willing to put his trust in a legislator and his or her staff to know a law's purpose as well as its words. Breyer seeks out evidence of a law's intent and context, he said, as the way to resolve disputes over its meaning. That approach, Breyer added, is more understandable to the public.

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