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REASONING FROM CANONICAL LEGAL TEXTS
IMPURE TEXTUALISM AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF RULES BY
” 1. The Algorithmic Textualist
When confronted with the conceptual impossibility of pure, intention- free textualism, textualists usually retreat to a less pure position. They
admit that we must refer to authorial intentions to determine that the marks we are supposed to interpret do in fact constitute a text – an attempt
by some rational being or beings to convey a meaningful proposition to others. And they go further and admit that we must refer to authorial
intent to determine in what language the text is written or spoken.
At this point, however, the textualists claim that we should jettison the search for the speaker’s intended meaning and rely solely on the textual
So how would a textualist interpret a canonical legal text? After she ascertains that it is in, say, English, she would have recourse solely to
dictionaries and books that set forth proper grammar, punctuation, and usage. Those, she argues, tell us what the utterance – the text – means,
not what its authors intended to mean by the text. And the text is “the law.”
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, although not taking sides in the intentionalism-textualism debate, does argue that once we know what language a text’s author was intending to
use, we can dispense with authorial intent and employ word meanings in that language. See Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Word Meaning in Legal Interpretation, 42 San Diego L. Rev.
465, 471–77 2005. We think, however, that leaving aside the normative issues and prob- lems of ambiguity, incorrect grammar, and the like, the position Sinnott-Armstrong gestures
toward rests on an oversimplification. Only in unusual cases – say, when a speaker is in a foreign country and must choose between speaking in the local language or in his native
tongue – does a speaker or author intend a language. In the usual case, he just intends to say something. And as we pointed out, the line between a language spoken incorrectly and an
idiolect spoken correctly will be arbitrary. See note 24 supra. That we can draw such a line for particular purposes – as, say, when we examine students on their French – does not refute
Consider this stylized case. Frankie, an American, encounters a stranger, Johnny, in Tan- zania. Frankie, believing Johnny to be a speaker of Swahili, decides to ask Johnny in Swahili
for directions to Arusha. Unfortunately, Frankie’s Swahili is terrible. She believes that the proper question in Swahili is, “Wich w¯a t¯u Arusha?” Actually, in Swahili that means “I want
to flee Arusha.” But Johnny, who in fact speaks English, takes her to be asking for directions to Arusha, which was, of course, Frankie’s intended meaning. Johnny has in fact understood
Frankie perfectly. If, realizing she is attempting to speak Swahili, he tells her what she would have been requesting had she been a competent Swahili speaker, he is being perverse.
The first point to note about this impure textualism is that, if one employs its methodology, “the law” is constructed not solely by the
authorities who author it but by those authorities together with a “mind- less” algorithm. The mindless algorithm is a function of the dictio-
nary and grammar book that are used to construct a meaning out of the author’s intended symbols and intended language. Mom utters the
sounds or makes the marks “autobahn”; the faithful interpreter runs a German highway through the den. Mom did not mean that, and we know
she did not. Nevertheless, the textualist would claim that her text meant that. We leave aside the problem to which we have previously adverted
of individuating languages and distinguishing between a language and idiolects thereof: did Mom misspeak in English, or did she speak cor-
rectly in Menglish, either her particular idiolect of English or perhaps even a separate language?
Of course, many words have several meanings, even in standard English. So the algorithm should specify which meaning counts as the
meaning of the text when the dictionary delivers more than one possi- ble meaning. For example, the algorithm might say that the first listed
meaning of the word is the meaning to be attributed to the text.
The textualist’s algorithm would, of course, have to be a norm higher in authority than the lawmaker whose texts are being interpreted because
the algorithm operates as a constraint on the rule maker’s ability to shape the legal universe as he intends to shape it. Textualist canons are to the
laws they govern as constitutional rules are to statutory rules, or statutory rules are to administrative or judicial nonconstitutional rules.
So let us hypothesize the following textualist algorithm: once marks are determined to be a legal text in English, give them the meaning they
would have according to the first meanings given in a particular dictio- nary and according to particular references for grammar, punctuation,
and usage. What would a world governed by textualist algorithms such as this one look like?
For one thing, many legal rules, the intended meaning of which we know perfectly well, would have to be treated as meaningless and thus
There is a joke about Justice Scalia asking a genie to grant him the wish that “a million bucks” be deposited in his Supreme Court office and later complaining that he could not enter the
building because of all the deer inside.
REASONING FROM CANONICAL LEGAL TEXTS
of no legal effect because they would not parse grammatically or syn- tactically, or because a word was misspelled and rendered a nonword.
Other laws would have to be given meanings that we know were not the intended meanings and that may be absurd. Scrivener’s errors could not
be ignored, and in Cernauskas v. Fletcher,
all of Arkansas’s laws would have been repealed by some minor law containing a scrivener’s error. The
Seventeenth Amendment would have expired after only six years.
And so on.
Textualists, of course, would argue that legal rule makers, under- standing the effects of the textualist algorithms, would be very careful
in conveying their intended meanings so that they corresponded to the meanings the textualist algorithms produced. And perhaps, over time,
scrivener’s errors and errors regarding dictionary meanings, punctua- tion, and grammar would be minimized. Indeed, putting impure tex-
tualism in its best light, interpreters might arrive at the rule maker’s intended meaning more often by following the textualist algorithms than
by consciously attempting to discover those intended meanings. In other words, algorithmic textualist interpreters, interpreting the words of rule
makers who understand that their interpreters will be algorithmic textu- alists and, accordingly, choose their words and punctuation marks with
great care, may come closer to the rule makers’ intended meanings over the full array of cases than intentionalist interpreters. That all depends on
the skills of interpreters at discerning intended meanings and the skills of rule makers at conveying intended meanings in conformance with the
Of course, if the textualist algorithms are incomplete – suppose they cannot completely eliminate ambiguity – then they will have to be
We are reminded of a Gary Larson cartoon that by itself is a reductio of intention-free textualism. In it, a plane is flying over a desert island on which a haggard, disheveled man has
carved in the sand h-e-l-f and is now waving his arms at the plane. The caption, representing the copilot’s words to the pilot, reads “Wait Wait . . . Cancel that, I guess it says ‘helf.’” The
copilot is obviously a committed intention-free textualist. See Larry Alexander, All or Nothing at All? The Intentions of Authorities and the Authority of Intentions, in Law and Interpretation:
Essays in Legal Philosophy 336 Andrei Marmor, ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press 1995.
21 Ark. 678, 201 S.W. 2d 999 1947 holding that law containing the fractured boilerplate “all laws . . . are hereby repealed” did not in fact repeal all of Arkansas’s laws.
U.S. Const. amend. XVII, § 1: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two
Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote.”
supplemented. If, for example, the algorithms do not eliminate an ambi- guity regarding whether a word in a legal text means A or B, perhaps
because the dictionary treats a single spelling as two different words rather than as one word with several definitions, then the interpreter will
have to go beyond the algorithms. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that any algorithm can be constructed that will completely eliminate ambiguity.
Does “No vehicles are allowed in the park” cover a tank used as a war memorial, skateboards, and shopping carts? Does the “no bears” rule we
hypothesized proscribe a stuffed grizzly hunting trophy? If we are told not to decide such issues by reference to authorial intentions but rather
to decide them solely by reference to dictionaries and so forth, we will be at sea. Likewise, in cases of ambiguity, the natural question for the
interpreter to ask is whether the rule maker meant A or B. But perhaps the rule maker meant neither A nor B. In such a case, authorial intent
clashes with textualist algorithms, and the latter fail to settle the matter.
Perhaps textualist algorithms can be constructed so that no cases such as the one hypothesized can arise. No ambiguities will be possible; the
algorithms will produce a single answer to every interpretive question. And perhaps following such textualist algorithms will, over the run of
cases, come closer to mirroring authorial intentions than attempts to discover those intentions directly. That is a question that cannot be
decided as a matter of theory. But even if such algorithms are possible and beneficial, the important point for our purposes is this: to the extent
the legally effective meaning is a joint product of authorial intentions in choosing marks in a language and textualist algorithms, it is in part
a mindless production, and at the interpretive stage a purely mindless matter. And mindless, mechanical construction of meaning for legal texts
through such algorithms requires absolutely no judgment and surely no special craft skill possessed only by lawyers. It is not some sort of special
“legal” reasoning. Indeed, if it bears the label of “reasoning” at all, it is reasoning of the most elementary, connect-the-dots type. What does
require judgment or skill is determining authors’ intended meanings. But such abilities are abilities everyone has to varying degrees, and lawyers
have no corner on that market.
Moreover, although impure textualism, unlike pure, intention-free textualism, is a conceptual possibility – it is really a form of intentionalism
that posits, as the author of the legal text in question, not the actual
REASONING FROM CANONICAL LEGAL TEXTS
authors, but a purely hypothetical author who has perfect command of grammar, punctuation, and usage and who always uses, say, the first
dictionary definition given – legal systems with which we are familiar do not employ impure textualism. Surely no jurisdiction within the
United States employs it. Clearly unintended absurdities and scrivener’s errors are everywhere ignored.
So, too, are punctuations that obviously conflict with intended meanings.
And context, not the order of listed meanings in dictionaries, is resorted to in order to resolve ambiguities.
The sign located in the window of the drug counselor’s office that says “Keep off the grass” is given a different meaning from that given the same
sign located on the lawn outside, no matter which definition of “grass” is listed first in the dictionary.