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Ryan D. Doerfler

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Can a Statute Have More Than One Meaning?

Ryan D. Doerfler

What statutory language means can vary from statute to statute, or even provision to provision. But what about from case to case? The conventional wisdom is that the same language can mean different things as used in different places within the United States Code. As used in some specific place, however, that language means what it means. Put differently, the same statutory provision must mean the same thing in all cases. To hold otherwise, courts and scholars suggest, would be contrary both to the rules of grammar and to the rule of law.

This Article challenges that conventional wisdom. Building on the observation that speakers can and often do transparently communicate different things to different audiences with the same verbalization or written text, it argues that, as a purely linguistic matter, there is nothing to prevent Congress from doing the same with statutes. More still, because the practical advantages of using multiple meanings— in particular, linguistic economy—are at least as important to Congress as to ordinary speakers, this Article argues further that it would be just plain odd if Congress never chose to communicate multiple messages with the same statutory text.

As this Article goes on to show, recognizing the possibility of multiple statutory meanings would let courts reach sensible answers to important doctrinal questions they currently do their best to avoid. Most notably, thinking about multiple meanings in an informed way would help courts explain under what conditions more than one agency should receive deference when interpreting a multi-agency statute. Relatedly, it would let courts reject as false the choice between Chevron deference and the rule of lenity for statutes with both civil and criminal applications.