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Anita S. Krishnakumar

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Cracking the Whole Code Rule

Anita S. Krishnakumar

Over the past three decades, since the late Justice Scalia joined the Court and ushered in a new era of text-focused statutory analysis, there has been a marked move towards the holistic interpretation of statutes and “making sense of the corpus juris.” In particular, Justices on the modern Supreme Court now regularly compare or analogize between statutes that contain similar words or phrases—what some have called the “whole code rule.” Despite the prevalence of this interpretive practice, however, scholars have paid little attention to how the Court actually engages in whole code comparisons on the ground.

This Article provides the first empirical and doctrinal analysis of how the modern Supreme Court uses whole code comparisons, based on a study of 532 statutory cases decided during the Roberts Court’s first twelve-and-a-half Terms. The Article first catalogues five different forms of whole code comparisons employed by the modern Court and notes that the different forms rest on different justifications, although the Court’s rhetoric has tended to ignore these distinctions. The Article then notes several problems, beyond the unrealistic one-Congress assumption identified by other scholars, that plague the Court’s current approach to most forms of whole code comparisons. For example, most of the Court’s statutory comparisons involve statutes that have no explicit connection to each other, and nearly one-third compare statutes that regulate entirely unrelated subject areas. Moreover, more than a few of the Court’s analogies involve generic statutory phrases—such as “because of” or “any”—whose meaning is likely to depend on context rather than some universal rule of logic or linguistics.

This Article argues that, in the end, the Court’s whole code comparisons amount to judicial drafting presumptions that assign fixed meanings to specific words, phrases, and structural choices. The Article critiques this judicial imposition of drafting conventions on Congress—noting that it is unpredictable, leads to enormous judicial discretion, reflects an unrealistic view of how Congress drafts, and falls far outside the judiciary’s institutional expertise. It concludes by recommending that the Court limit its use of whole code comparisons to situations in which congressional drafting practices, rule of law concerns, or judicial expertise justify the practice—e.g., where Congress itself has made clear that one statute borrowed from or incorporated the provisions of another, or where judicial action is necessary to harmonize two related statutes with each other.