Rethinking The Plain Meaning Rule

It has been more than twelve years since the General Assembly overruled State v. Courchesne and codified the “plain meaning rule” in General Statutes § 1-2z. The plain meaning rule says that a court shall not consult extra-textual evidence of the meaning of the statute unless the statutory text, read in context, is ambiguous.

Implicit in the rule, then, is the proposition that legislative history is useful information. It can be helpful to ascertaining the meaning of a statute. But the plain meaning rule says it is only helpful if the text is ambiguous.

Why is legislative history useful and helpful in some circumstances, but not in others? Professors William Baude and Ryan Doerfler address the “puzzle” of the plain meaning rule in an upcoming article in the University of Chicago Law Review. They write:

On its surface, the rule has an intuitive appeal. It seems like a safe  intermediate position between strict textualism and some form of  all-things-considered eclecticism or pragmatism. But if we poke below the surface, we ought to see that the basic structure  of the plain meaning rule  is  quite  puzzling.  In our normal lives, in most contexts under the rules of evidence, and elsewhere, information is either useful or not.  Information that is relevant shouldn’t normally become irrelevant just because the text is clear. And vice versa, irrelevant information shouldn’t become useful just because the text is less than clear.

This puzzling structure  –  “consider-only-in-case-of-ambiguity”  –  deserves investigation.  In this essay we first explain the puzzle more formally, and then begin that investigation. It turns out that we  can  sketch  some  conditions  under which this puzzling structure could be justified, for certain kinds of evidence. But nobody has shown that the plain meaning rule in fact meets these conditions,  and we  rather  doubt that they could justify the plain meaning rule across the board. More importantly,  we suspect that most interpreters have never even asked themselves the question.

Given that every single Connecticut trial and appellate court opinion involving statutory construction over the last decade starts out by quoting § 1-2z, it is worth taking the time to think deeply about whether the plain meaning rule really makes sense. I have my doubts.  But I urge readers (and the judges of the Connecticut Supreme Court) to read the article and decide for themselves.



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