Textual Structure, Legislative History and the Absurdity Doctrine in Statutory Interpretation

Hall v. United States, 99 Fed. Cl. 223,2011 U.S. Claims LEXIS 1151 (Ct. Cl. June 21, 2011):

Although statutory interpretation begins with the "plain text," a court turns to "the traditional tools of statutory construction, e.g., legislative history," if the intent and meaning of a statute are not clear from its plain text. Grapevine Imports, Ltd. v. United States, 636 F.3d 1368, 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2011). Intent is not derived merely from the bare text, but also from the "structure of the statute." Xianli Zhang v. United States, Nos. 2010-5026, 2010-5027, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 6883, 2011 WL 1321187, at *5 (Fed. Cir. Apr. 6, 2011). A court must "give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress," but can resort to legislative history to clarify that intent. Id.

Furthermore, when determining whether or not to consider legislative history, a court should attempt to avoid "'absurd results.'" Id. (quoting United States v. Turkette, 452 U.S. 576, 580, 101 S. Ct. 2524, 69 L. Ed. 2d 246 (1981)). When "the literal reading of a statutory term would 'compel an odd result,'" a court "must search for other evidence of congressional intent to lend the term its proper scope." Public Citizen v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 454, 109 S. Ct. 2558; 105 L. Ed. 2d 377 (1989) (quoting Green v. Bock Laundry Mach. Co., 490 U.S. 504, 509, 109 S. Ct. 1981, 104 L. Ed. 2d 557 (1989)); see also Ambassador Div. of Florsheim Shoe v. United States, 748 F.2d 1560, 1563 (Fed. Cir. 1984) (noting that at times a "cold textual analysis . . . produces absurd results, results that were not and could not have been within the contemplation of Congress"). In its current state, the absurdity doctrine applies:

[W]here the supposed absurdity does not arise from the judge thinking himself wiser than the legislator, or better able to draft workable laws, where the true intent of Congress is clearly articulable from the whole body of laws of which the provision to be construed is a part, or the legislative history, and where the literally stated intent is broader than the true intent.

Ambassador, 748 F.2d at 1564-65; see also Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457, 459, 12 S. Ct. 511, 36 L. Ed. 226 (1892) ("[F]requently words of general meaning are used in a statute, words broad enough to include an act in question, and yet a consideration of the whole legislation . . . or of the absurd results which follow from giving such broad meaning to the words, makes it unreasonable to believe that the legislator intended to include the particular act.").

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