The Limits of Literalism: Why a Textualist Approach to Legal Interpretation is Not Always Appropriate

Legal interpretation refers to the process of analyzing and understanding legal texts such as statutes, regulations, and court decisions. There are various approaches to legal interpretation, one of which is literalism or textualism. Textualism asserts that the plain meaning of the words in the legal text should determine its interpretation. However, this approach has limitations, and it may not always be appropriate to rely solely on the literal meaning of legal texts.

One of the limitations of literalism is that it may not take into account the context in which the legal text was written. For instance, legal texts may use technical terms or language that may have a different meaning than the one commonly understood by non-lawyers. Additionally, some legal texts may be ambiguous and require interpretation based on the purpose and intent of the underlying law.

Furthermore, literalism may not be suitable for interpreting complex legal issues that involve overlapping or conflicting provisions. In such cases, relying solely on the literal meaning of legal texts may lead to absurd or unintended outcomes. For example, in the case of a will that leaves property to a person who is deceased, a literal interpretation would disqualify the person’s descendants from inheriting the property, even if that was not the intention of the will creator.

Another limitation of literalism is that it may not allow for changes in the law’s meaning over time. Language evolves, and words may take on different meanings depending on the context and time period in which they are used. For example, the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” However, what constitutes a reasonable search or seizure has evolved over time due to changing societal norms and technological advancements.

Finally, literalism may not account for the purposes and values underlying the law. Legal texts are often written with a specific purpose in mind, such as protecting individual rights, promoting public health and safety, or ensuring a fair and just society. Ignoring these underlying principles when interpreting legal texts may lead to outcomes that are contrary to the law’s purpose and values.

In conclusion, while textualism has its merits in legal interpretation, it is not always appropriate or sufficient. The limitations of literalism, such as ignoring context, complexity, language evolution, and underlying values, may lead to absurd interpretations and outcomes that are contrary to the law’s purpose. Instead, legal interpretation should consider a range of factors, including the text’s language, context, purpose, and underlying values, to arrive at the most reasonable and just interpretation.