University of Southern California

A Matter of Perspective: Textualism, Stare Decisis, and Federal Employment Discrimination Law

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Article by Stephen M. Rich
From Volume 87, Number 5 (July, 2013)

When the Supreme Court rules on matters of statutory interpretation, it does not establish “methodological precedents.” The Court is not bound to follow interpretive practices employed in a prior case even if successive cases concern the same statute. Instead, the Court’s interpretive practices may change without warning or explanation, and at times they do so as part of a broader transition between interpretive regimes independently of any substantive change to the statute interpreted. Stare decisis appears to require no justification for changes in the Court’s interpretive practices. This is striking because abrupt changes in the interpretive practices applied to a statute have the power to disrupt the consistency and predictability of a statute’s enforcement and the rationality of its design.

The Court’s decisions involving federal employment discrimination law illustrate this problem. For decades, the Supreme Court ascribed to this body of law a particular constellation of congressional purposes, assumptions, and regulatory objectives that it consulted in order to navigate difficult questions of statutory interpretation and to integrate new interpretations into a coherent legal framework. The Court’s interpretations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act seemed to guide the interpretation of other employment discrimination statutes. Scholars have long described certain of the Court’s Title VII decisions as prime examples of purposivist interpretation. Moreover, the seminal decisions establishing the building blocks of the statute’s doctrine share a common interpretive perspective that allowed the Court to determine statutory meaning against the background of a particular set of legislative purposes, assumptions, and objectives.

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