Should textualism lead to more “conservative” outcomes as a matter of course? No.
Those who wish to transform textualism—a methodology of interpretation—into a vessel for conservative policy outcomes are in the wrong business. Instead of being in the business of law, they are in the business of politics. For years, a small group of Canadian judges have fought hard against this tendency. As Justice Stratas, for example, notes in Hillier, at para 33:
Those we elect and, within legislative limits, their delegatees (e.g., Ministers making regulations) alone may take their freestanding policy preferences and make them bind by passing legislation. Absent constitutional concern, those who apply legislation—from the most obscure administrative decision-makers to the judges on our highest court—must take the legislation as it is, applying it without fear or favour. Their freestanding policy preferences do not bind, nor can they make them bind by amending the legislation: Euro-Excellence Inc. v. Kraft Canada Inc., 2007 SCC 37,  3 S.C.R. 20 at para.
On this account, the proper venue for political change is the legislature, not the courts. For that reason, it was always faulty to attach a political agenda to textualism. Recent “disappointments” for conservatives at the Supreme Court of the United States are a reflection of the reality: textualism was never designed to achieve certain policy ends, and rightly so. Conservatives who wish to do so, in my view, are just as unprincipled as living treeists, who would adapt the Constitution and statutes to suit their policy preferences.
To make this point, I focus on the SCOTUS’ recent decision in Bostock, which has rankled conservatives who have a political agenda (though as I will note, there are others who have principled objections to the interpretation in Bostock). I first outline why, on first principles, Gorsuch J’s interpretation in the case is justified. Then I move on to consider the perils of the approach shared by some conservatives and progressives. As Brian Tamanaha notes in his important book, this results-oriented reasoning in statutory interpretation is profoundly disrespectful of the Rule of Law, which presupposes law as an independent field, a closed system–even if we may only reach that result imperfectly.
- In the link above, Josh Hammer says that Bostock represents the end of legal conservativism, arguing that “[w]hat we need is a more forceful conservative legal movement, just as willing as the left to make moral arguments in court, based on principles of justice, natural law…the common good and religious and moral traditions underlying Anglo-American constitutional order.” Forget if these traditions are not represented in legislation; they should somehow subvert Congress’ choices.
- Senator Josh Hawley spelled the end of the conservative legal movement, arguing: “And if those are the things that we’ve been fighting for—it’s what I thought we had been fighting for, those of us who call ourselves legal conservatives—if we’ve been fighting for originalism and textualism, and this is the result of that, then I have to say it turns out we haven’t been fighting for very much.”
- Robert George argues that the case “…vindicates Adrian Vermeule’s warning to conservatives that trying to combat the longstanding “progressive” strategy of imposing a substantive moral-political agenda through the courts by appointing “originalist” and “textualist” judges is hopeless.” What is the conservative version of such an agenda? The goal is to “…advance a socially conservative moral and political vision.”
I could go on. What unites these critiques is the idea that somehow the Court, in applying a plausible textual interpretation, failed conservatives on substantive grounds. To this I say: so be it. The place for these visions of the good deserve to be aired in public, not in august courtrooms.
What was the offense caused to conservatives in Bostock? The Court (per Gorsuch J for the majority) decided that Title VII protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and identity because such discrimination necessarily and logically involves discrimination on the basis of sex. The textual problem in Bostock was, in some ways, staggering: Title VII does not include sexual orientation or identity as distinct grounds of discrimination. However, for Gorsuch J, the ordinary meaning of the term “sex” applied today just as it did when Title VII was promulgated. Applying that definition, Gorsuch J reasoned that when one discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation or identity, one must necessarily discriminate on the basis of sex. This is because when one fires someone, for example, for being gay, they are necessarily making an implicit judgment about the person’s gender. If a man is attracted to another man, and is fired on that basis, the employer is implicitly saying that she would tolerate that attraction if the employee was a woman attracted to a man. Gender plays at least some small part in the decision to fire.
Because of the text of Title VII which prohibits discrimination “because of sex,” it did not matter if gender was not the primary cause of the discrimination. The “because of” standard encompasses even a 1% causal vector of the discrimination. This was supported by precedent.
Notably Gorsuch J refused to consider the fact that post-Title VII enactment Congresses have not amended Title VII to include sexual identity or orientation. This “post-enactment legislative history,” as it is technically called, should be anathema to textualists, because there is no good reason to suppose why Congresses failed to amend the statute. Just like pre-enactment legislative history, this sort of evidence should not ground an interpretation on its own; at best, it can be used with caution, particularly where the reason why Congress failed to act is clear.
My main point here is not to defend this particular interpretation, but I cannot help but make a tentative case for Gorsuch J’s view. I do this in order to demonstrate that the real dispute here is not a political one, but a legal one, between textualists. In my view, a number of interpretive considerations support his view.
Text: Gorsuch J’s textual interpretation comes down to the plausibility of his point that sex is inextricably linked to sexual orientation and identity: or more specifically, that discrimination on these grounds are all closely related. While Alito J in dissent disputed this point, and others have as well, there is some textual logic to it. First, there are at least some cases where sex is necessarily bound up with discrimination based on orientation. If there is even a chance that an employer could tolerate opposite sex attraction, but oppose same sex attraction, then the relevant difference is sex. With that aside, more importantly, a textual interpretation of the words “because of” leads to the conclusion that these words are broad. Broad words=broad meaning. On that account, any chance that discrimination could occur on the basis of sex, in the course of discrimination based on other unlisted grounds, is encompassed in the “because of” language.
Precedent supported this conclusion. In Oncale (per Scalia J, the king of textualists), Justice Scalia held that Title VII prohibited discrimination based on same-sex harassment. Why? Because the words “because of” encompassed situations involving same sex: “…we hold today that nothing in Title VII necessarily bars a claim of discrimination “because of…sex” merely because the plaintiff and defendant…are of the same sex” (79).
This is a simple matter of dynamic interpretation. When courts interpret broad, causal language, they must apply these terms to new situations. This is not a re-writing of the statute. Indeed, both sides in Bostock agree that the meanings of “sex” and “because of” are the same when Title VII was enacted and in the present day. But where new fact situations arise, that original meaning must be applied to new situations. As Justice Scalia noted in Oncale, while male-on-male sexual harassment was not the evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII, “…statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed” (my emphasis). As Justice Scalia also says in his classic A Matter of Interpretation, statutory interpretation is governed by the rule that text should be interpreted “….to contain all that it fairly means” (23). This is all Gorsuch J did in Bostock.
Some might say this is a plain meaning approach. But I don’t see it. Justice Gorsuch gave the words “sex” and “because of” the same meaning they had when Title VII was enacted. He merely interpreted those words to encompass phenomenon that reasonably fall within their ambit. The fact that a phenomenon is new does not mean that it is necessarily excluded from broad statutory language. The question then is not whether Congress anticipated particular applications to new phenomenon. The question is whether the text can cover off those applications.
Context and Legislative History: If the text is clear—or at least clear enough—then there is no need or warrant to deviate from it. The Canadian Supreme Court accepts this reality (see Celgene, at para 21, and more, and more). And so does the American Supreme Court: see Milner. What this means is that legislative history, and post-enactment legislative history, cannot enter the interpretive task. This means that the fact Congress did not act to explicitly adopt certain explicit prohibitions is irrelevant.
Why should these be considered irrelevant? Post-enactment legislative history is a dangerous tool, on both principled and pragmatic grounds. On the former, legislative history goes to the intent of lawmakers, not to the natural import of the words they adopt in legislation. The latter matters. Whatever Congress did or didn’t do is of no relevance to the meaning of the words adopted. But the problems mount on pragmatic grounds. Legislative history, as Justice Scalia always noted, is not probative, because whatever people say may not be reflected in text. Post-enactment legislative history is even worse. Now we are trying to draw inferences based on what Congress did not do. That is a fool’s errand. As Justice Gorsuch notes, we will never know why Congress did not act to amend Title VII. This is not interpretation, but rather arm-chair psychology about what Congresses may have thought.
Before continuing, I want to clearly acknowledge that there are plausible textual interpretations that run counter to Gorsuch J’s view. Some could argue that Gorsuch J’s analysis is a literalist approach, rather than one based on ordinary meaning. One could even say that Gorsuch J’s interpretation is itself compelled by results oriented reasoning, rather than the law. But this latter attack would only be strong if Gorsuch J’s approach was not plausibly based on text and precedent. Since, I hope, most would concede that this is a close call (in the name of humility), it is difficult to say anyone was results-oriented in Bostock. Better to keep politics out of it—after all, lawyers have no special political views warranting special treatment—and view the matter as a textual disagreement. I would characterize Bostock as a debate about legal interpretation, not political aims.
But there are exogenous, conservative forces that want to introduce this phantom into Bostock. Conservatives often get angry at progressives who invoke living constitutionalism (in Canada, the living tree metaphor) to adapt the Constitution to present realities. In Canada, we are familiar with this interpretive trick. How else to explain what Justice Abella did in SFL, where she, in all her wisdom, decided that it was now the time to grant “benediction” to a right to strike in Canada’s Constitution? The same phenomenon is at play when conservatives seek to use the law to achieve policy aims that should be achieved in the legislature.
Both attempts by ideologues to subvert law should be rejected. This is no longer a popular view, but law is an autonomous field, within reason, in the realm of statutory interpretation. The methods of interpretation are just that: methodologies. They are designed to reach the authentic meaning (contrast this with intent or expected application) of legislation. If a Congress passes legislation that is socialistic, then it should be authentically applied, leading to socialistic outcomes. If Congress passes legislation cutting back on social benefits, that legislation should be applied leading to its natural outcome. Judges do not bring special moral or political wisdom to the interpretive task. If lawyers are upset about the terms of legislation, they can speak out about it in the political realm. But that’s all.
The flaws of adopting a political approach to interpretation are not only present on a principled basis. If the political aims of legislation become the sole basis on which interpretation is conducted, then the incentive is to simply appoint people based on their substantive political views, not on the quality of their legal craft. To some extent, this is already happening in the United States. In that context, all we will see is a flat-out war between progressives and conservatives who seek to subvert law to their own aims. Nothing, not even law, which is supposed to be a fetter on political wishes, will be sacred anymore. From a strategic perspective, this is bad for either side. Victories achieved by one side in the courtroom can easily be overturned once the “other side” achieves power. And the merry-go-round goes on.
Better, in my view, to hone our arguments to legal ones, applying neutral methodologies, as best we can. Interpretation is designed to determine the meaning of legislative texts. Let the legislature legislate, and let courts interpret. Believe it or not, lawyers and their political views are not particularly enlightened.