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Iowa Law Review

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King v. Burwell, enacted purposes, statutory interpretation


Constitutional Law | Law | Supreme Court of the United States


This Article argues that the principle relied upon in King v. Burwell that courts "cannot interpret statutes to negate their stated purposes"-the enacted purposes canon-is and should be viewed as a bedrock element of statutory interpretation. The Supreme Court has relied upon this principle for decades, but it has done so in ways that do not call attention to this interpretive choice. As a result, the scope and patterns of the Court's reliance are easy to miss. After reconstructing the Court's practice, this Article defends this principle of interpretation on analytic, normative, and pragmatic grounds. Building on jurisprudence showing that when a rule states its own justification the meaning of the rule changes, this Article argues that enacted purposes change the range of permissible readings of a statute. The Article also argues that the enacted purposes canon has beneficial consequences because it requires courts to prioritize the most public-regarding elements of legislation. The canon, moreover, represents a point of agreement between textualist and purposivist approaches to statutory interpretation. Based on the Court's long reliance and positive justification, it is time to acknowledge the enacted purposes canon.

Recognition of the enacted purposes canon matters to administrative law and legislation. The enacted purposes canon applies in review of administrative agency action to prevent agencies from adopting interpretations inconsistent with their statutes' enacted purposes-an implication with particular importance when the president's policies are in tension with some of the enacted purposes in legislation. This analysis also exposes how conventional guidance on legislative drafting misses the critical feature of enacted purpose provisions: the way they entrench policy. Finally, and most importantly, attention to enacted purposes serves as a reminder that our federal legislation is a messy accumulation of individual statutes, with their own purposes, not a formal code.



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