One might say that the difference between the two statutory interpretation cases I've recently discussed is the difference between an American jurisprudence obsessed with text and with circumscribing power, and a South African jurisprudence committed to shaping law to transform a nation and therefore determining the meaning of law in light of its purpose rather than its words. And this idea does, indeed, capture an important difference between U.S. and South African law.
But it would be wrong to think that nontextual statutory interpretation is unknown in the United States. Certainly we have a history of such interpretation, dating back to the classic case of Rector of Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892). Holy Trinity asserted -- and not without precedent -- that "[i]t is a familiar rule that a thing may be within the letter of the
statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit
nor within the intention of its makers." 143 U.S. at 459. But Holy Trinity has largely fallen from favor in recent years. In an opinion concurring in the judgment (but not in the more free-wheeling majority opinion) in the case of Public Citizen v. United States Department of Justice, 491 U.S. 440 (1989), Justice Kennedy noted that Holy Trinity affirmed that a statute should be interpreted in light of the supposed fact that the United States is a "Christian nation." He responded, 491 U.S. at 474, that "I should think the potential of this doctrine to allow judges to
substitute their personal predelictions [sic] for the will of the Congress is
so self-evident from the case which spawned it as to require no further
discussion of its susceptibility to abuse."
Still, reports of the demise of nontextual reading of statutes in the United States are premature. Broadly speaking, it seems to me that the text fades in significance when the constitutional stakes go up. The more a statute involves constitutional values, the more likely it will be read in light of those values rather than in light of its text.
For a striking recent example, consider Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 129 S. Ct. 2658 (2009). This is the well-known case from 2009 in which the Supreme Court addressed a decision by the City of New Haven, Connecticut to set aside the results of a test taken by firefighters seeking promotion, a test under which no blacks at all would have been eligible for promotion. New Haven maintained that it could not use the test results because it "had a good-faith belief" that doing so would itself have constituted illegal discrimination against minorities. 129 S. Ct. at 2671. The Supreme Court, however, decided that the city's decision was actually illegal discrimination against those firefighters -- all of them white, except for two Hispanics -- who had done well on the tests.
As the Court explains, the federal statute that bans employment discrimination on the basis of race, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., actually forbids two different kinds of discrimination. One is disparate impact discrimination -- unequal results that lack a justification in "business necessity," whether or not they are themselves the result of purposeful bias. The other is disparate treatment discrimination, which is precisely the result of purposeful bias. Here, New Haven said it had acted in order to avoid the risk of falling into disparate impact discrimination, as it would have if the promotional test it used -- and on which whites did far better than blacks -- was not one that fairly measured applicants' qualifications. But in so doing it in a sense discriminated against the whites who had done well on the test. So the question was -- or at least this was one way to view it -- when is an employer legally entitled to deliberately disadvantage whites in order to avoid discriminating unintentionally against blacks? See 129 S. Ct. at 2674.
The problem was that the statute offered absolutely no express answer to this question. So far as the justices' opinions reflect, Congress never considered the potential for such a conflict arising; quite possibly, as Justice Ginsburg suggested in dissent, 129 S. Ct. at 2699, Congress considered its two prohibitions -- of disparate impact and disparate treatment discrimination -- to be congruent and mutually reinforcing, rather than potentially in conflict with each other. A majority of the Supreme Court seems to have been uncomfortable with the "disparate impact" idea for two decades (a history recounted by the dissent, 129 S. Ct. at 2699, though unmentioned by the majority). But Congress may simply not have seen good faith efforts by employers to avoid disparate impact on minorities as raising any issue at all of disparate treatment of whites.
Whatever the history, however, both the majority and the dissent in Ricci acknowledged the possibility that the two duties -- not to create disparate impact discrimination and not to create disparate treatment discrimination -- could come into conflict. The majority, in an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, decided that an employer could legally disadvantage whites in order to avoid disparate impact discrimination against blacks, but only if it had a "strong basis in evidence" for its claim that unless it did so it would in fact be in violation of the prohibition on disparate impact discrimination. 129 S. Ct. at 2675-76. That was a standard the majority took quite directly from one of its cases construing the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (a central constitutional protection against race discrimination) to limit affirmative action. The dissent responded that that test was much too stringent, and that all that should be required was that "[t]he employer must have good cause to believe the device [here, the promotion test] would not withstand examination for business necessity." 129 S. Ct. at 2699.
One could argue about which standard is more appropriate. My point, though, is that the statute didn't say. In prohibiting disparate impact and disparate treatment, the statute ultimately left it to the Supreme Court to say when each of those arose, and how to handle collisions between them. The judges responded by importing their constitutional views into the shaping of the answer. (I should acknowledge that Justice Ginsburg responds to the majority's use of constitutional precedent by saying that "equal protection doctrine is of limited utility." 129 S. Ct. at 2700. But I take that statement less as a suggestion that Title VII should be interpreted without regard to the constitution than as a reflection of the dissenters' view that current constitutional equal protection doctrine is itself problematic. Race discrimination in the United States, it seems to me, is always an issue with constitutional overtones.)
So, too, South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal brought constitutional considerations directly to bear on the statutory text at issue in the Democratic Alliance case. In doing so, the Supreme Court of Appeal sought to constrain executive power, and it seems clear that its central goal was to find legal tools to combat the danger of corruption in South African public life -- a noble objective. The United States Supreme Court in Ricci used a similar technique to challenge what it saw as the perpetuation of racial division and racial discrimination in the United States -- another noble goal, phrased that way.
But many people see the Ricci case as part of the Supreme Court's rejection of affirmative action and race-conscious remedies for the discrimination against blacks and other minorities that has so deeply injured the United States -- and so they do not see the Court's effort in Ricci as a wise one at all. It might similarly be argued that the Democratic Alliance decision interfered with legitimate executive authority, and that in taking this step, even for the best of reasons, the court imperiled the position of the judiciary in South Africa's polity, potentially with results even worse in the long run than those that might have resulted from the appointment at issue in that case.
These are big issues, and reasonable people can disagree about them. What I want to emphasize is that when a court reads a statute based on its understanding of constitutional values rather than of the words of the statute, it has taken on a profound responsibility for shaping the nation. If it is clear what the constitution commands, of course, one can fairly maintain that the courts are honoring the fundamental democratic choices of the country by reading them into the less fundamental words of ordinary statutes. But if it isn't clear what the constitution commands -- and sooner or later the constitution's meaning does become a subject of debate and controversy, as for example in the case of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause in U.S. law today -- then the choices being implemented are no longer necessarily those of the people and may instead be those of the judges. Such choices are, I think, sometimes needed and right. They may also be unavoidable, notably when the statute simply does not answer the question that it has now come to be seen as posing. But it's worth remembering that when such judicial choices are made they take the fate of the nation, to a certain extent, out of the democratic process.