Feb. 1, 2016 -- Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit argued recently at the University of Houston Law Center that federal judges should place greater emphasis on the “intentions” of lawmakers and not just the strict interpretation of statutory language.
Katzmann discussed statutory interpretation Jan. 29 with University of Houston Law Center Assistant Professor D. Theodore Rave as part of the inaugural session of the Judge Ruby Kless Sondock Jurist in Residence Program.
The Supreme Court’s decision in King v. Burwell on the meaning of the Affordable Care Act put statutory interpretation in the spotlight. Katzmann said while constitutional cases often get the headlines, the bulk of the work of the federal courts is statutory interpretation. Some judges and theorists, perhaps most prominently, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, have argued that courts should look to the words of the statute and virtually nothing else when interpreting and applying the law.
In his book, “Judging Statutes,” Katzmann defends an alternative approach. He argues that “the fundamental task for the judge is to determine what Congress was trying to do in passing the law.” In order to figure that out, Katzmann said judges need to pay attention to the way the legislative process actually works, and should consult legislative history because the legislators who pass these statutes rely on it also.
“Statutory interpretation is one of the most important, if not the most important, aspect of a federal judge's job,” Rave said. “Understanding how judges approach the task of interpreting a statute is essential for any lawyer or law student. Having the chance to hear it from a sitting federal judge -- especially one who has thought carefully about these issues, both on the bench and as an academic beforehand -- is a rare treat.
“I hope that people got a feel for the complexity of the legislative drafting process and learned that judges should --and do - care about how the legislature actually works when interpreting the laws it produces.”
The next speaker in the program is U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of Texas Lee H. Rosenthal on Feb. 16. Click here to RSVP.
Future speakers include U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of Texas George C. Hanks on March 21 and Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey V. Brown on April 18.