Statutory interpretation–plain meaning

Ordinary Causation: A Study in Experimental Statutory Interpretation

73 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2019

Columbia Law School

Date Written: March 14, 2019


In a series of recent split decisions interpreting criminal and tort-like legislation, the Supreme Court has purported to give statutory causation requirements their ordinary, plain meaning. Armed with dictionaries, examples from everyday speech, and commonsense intuitions, the Court’s majority has explained that statutory phrases like “because of” and “results from” entail but-for causation as a matter of ordinary usage. There’s just one problem: The Court’s majority (and the many state and federal courts following its lead) is wrong on the facts — specifically, the facts about how people ordinarily interpret, understand, and use causal language.

This Article considers a novel approach to ordinary meaning statutory interpretation, using these recent causation cases as a proof of concept: To find how people would ordinarily construe statutory language in context, ask a lot of people to apply the disputed language, and observe what they do. In short, to find public meaning, ask the public. As a demonstration, the Article reports the results of a nationally representative survey of nearly 1500 jury-eligible laypeople. It tests the Supreme Court’s recent pronouncements about the ordinary meaning of causal language in Title VII, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Controlled Substances Act, and jury instructions in similar criminal and statutory tort settings. The results reveal clear and consistent patterns of causal attribution and ordinary usage — patterns that squarely contradict the Court’s ordinary meaning determinations. The results also demonstrate that certain alternative causation standards, though rejected by the Court as inconsistent with ordinary linguistic, conceptual, and moral intuitions, come closer to tracking all three.

These discoveries raise serious concerns about the outcomes in recent criminal and tort causation cases, and possibly about ordinary and plain meaning interpretation more broadly. After discussing the implications for causation doctrine and statutory interpretation, the Article considers whether similar experimental methodologies might shed light on additional interpretation controversies in criminal and tort settings, on theories of common law doctrinal development, and on philosophical analyses of causation in criminal and tort theory.

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