Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit delivered the 43rd James Madison Lecture on October 18. Katzmann, who has taught an administrative law seminar at NYU Law for a number of years, addressed the judicial interpretation of federal statutes.

A substantial majority of the Supreme Court’s caseload, he said, involved statutory construction: “This steady diet of statutory cases reflects the simple reality that, just as Congress produces legislation, so courts are called on to interpret those laws. In the best of all possible words, the language of the statute is plain on its face, pristine, brimming with clarity. Then the job of the judge is generally straightforward.... But when, as so often happens, the statute is ambiguous or vague or otherwise imprecise, then the interpretive task is not so obvious.”

In his lecture, introduced by Norman Dorsen, Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law, Katzmann traced the evolution of purpose- and textualist-oriented approaches to statutory interpretation, considered lawmaking from the perspectives of Congress and federal agencies, and examined how the legislative process has evolved, including the ways lawmakers signal legislative meaning to the agencies charged with interpreting and executing the law.

“Although in a formal sense the legislative process ends with the legislative enactment of a law, in their interpretive role courts inescapably become part of that process,” he said. “For the judiciary, understanding that process is essential if it is to construe statutes in a manner that is faithful to legislative meaning.... By understanding statutory interpretation as an enterprise involving other institutions, we can better address the question of how courts ought to interpret statutes.”

Katzmann underlined the importance and ubiquity of statutes: “Statutes affect all manner of life, including the most pressing public policy issues of the day.... The numbers and kinds of statutes are enormous. Some statutes mandate particular actions. Others prohibit particular behaviors. Still others give considerable discretion to agencies to implement the legislature’s meaning. A few specifically provide for court tests.... Statutes can address the seemingly trivial to matters of fundamental significance. Statutes, my friends, are everywhere.”

Coming down on the side of judges’ using background legislative materials and other sources to discern the intent of legislators, Katzmann said, “A purely textualist approach which maintains that judges should restrict themselves only to the words of the statute is inadequate when interpreting ambiguous laws.... Legislative history can help us understand what the law means. Depriving judges of what appears to animate legislators risks having courts interpret the legislation in ways that legislators did not intend. The danger, as Justice Breyer powerfully observed, is that the court will divorce law from life.”

Katzmann outlined practical ways to achieve greater clarity in drafted legislation, and for the judiciary to better inform Congress of problems found in statutes the courts review. He argued that Congress intends its legislation to be understood through its institutional processes and range of legislative materials behind the actual statutory text, adding that there was bipartisan support for his view in Congress. “When courts construe statutes in ways that respect what legislators consider to be their work product,” he said, “the judiciary promotes comity with the first branch.”

Posted on October 21, 2011