Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2002

Abstract

Ambiguity serves a legislative purpose. When legislators perceive a need to compromise they can, among other strategies, "obscur[e] the particular meaning of a statute, allowing different legislators to read the obscured provisions the way they wish." Legislative ambiguity reaches its peak when a statute is so elegantly crafted that it credibly supports multiple inconsistent interpretations by legislators and judges. Legislators with opposing views can then claim that they have prevailed in the legislative arena, and, as long as courts continue to issue conflicting interpretations, these competing claims of legislative victory remain credible. Formal legal doctrine, in contrast, frames legislative ambiguity as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be exploited. Toward that end, judges and scholars have developed an arsenal of interpretive techniques that are designed to extract functional meaning from ambiguous statutory text and conflicting legislative history. The Supreme Court regularly addresses the question of statutory interpretation in its opinions and offers guidance as to appropriate rules of construction. If these interpretive techniques are effective, then different judges faced with the challenge of construing a fixed piece of legislative text and history should produce consistent interpretations.


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