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Epistemology

Faculty Scholarship at Penn Carey Law

Old & New Holy Trinity

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High-Stakes Interpretation, Ryan D. Doerfler Mar 2017

High-Stakes Interpretation, Ryan D. Doerfler

Faculty Scholarship at Penn Carey Law

Courts look at text differently in high-stakes cases. Statutory language that would otherwise be ‘unambiguous’ suddenly becomes ‘less than clear.’ This, in turn, frees up courts to sidestep constitutional conflicts, avoid dramatic policy changes, and, more generally, get around undesirable outcomes. The standard account of this behavior is that courts’ failure to recognize ‘clear’ or ‘unambiguous’ meanings in such cases is motivated or disingenuous, and, at best, justified on instrumentalist grounds.

This Article challenges that account. It argues instead that, as a purely epistemic matter, it is more difficult to ‘know’ what a text means—and, hence, more difficult to regard …