Monday, December 21, 2009

The textualist fallacy: trying to impute meaning to "of"

I've promised an example of the textualist fallacy in legal scholarship. Recall that the SCAT hypothesis holds that the components of meaning of a legal text (and all other texts, really) are structure, context and text, while the textualist fallacy happens when one assumes that meaning comes only from text.

Since today is oral argument day in McDonald v. Chicago, I'll illustrate with an example from commentary on the case. In McDonald, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the Second Amendment's individual right to keep and bear arms is incorporated against the states under the Fourteenth Amendment, or whether it is restricted to the right against the federal government that was found in D.C. v. Heller.

A bit of background explanation may be in order, for readers who know even less constitutional law than I do. Besides the equal protection clause, ection 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, contains two clauses that would seem to restrict the ability of states to interfere with individual freedoms of citizens: the privileges or immunities clause (“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”), and the due process clause (“nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”). It is generally agreed that the effect of these is to create rights against the states parallel to the rights that exist against the federal government, which is known as incorporating those rights against the states.

Not all rights against the federal government are incorporated against the states. For example, the Seventh Amendment's right to a jury trial has been held not applicable against the states. Other rights have not been adjudicated yet, most saliently the right to keep and bear arms, which was held less than two years ago to include an individual right to possess weapons, in District of Columbia v. Heller. The defendant in that case was the federal government, because the District of Columbia is not a state. McDonald will decide whether one of the Fourteenth Amendment's incorporation clauses protects this right against the states as well.

This is a pretty big question, but McDonald is actually bigger, because the Supreme Court will consider both Fourteenth Amendment clauses as bases for incorporating the right, instead of just the Due Process clause, as it usually does. This is seen by many as an opportunity to correct a historical wrong in the interpretation of the clauses. The privileges or immunities clause may seem, to the ordinary reader, to be more powerful than the due process clause, because it prohibits state interference with substantive rights of citizens, while the due process clause appears to refer only to procedural rights such as the right to a fair trial. In reality, it has almost always been the due process clause that has been used to incorporate rights against the state, including substantive rights. The privileges or immunities clause, on the other hand, has hardly been held to protect anything at all.

Many people are irked by the court's failure to give effect to the privileges or immunities clause, and many of the same and others are irked by the court's creation of substantive rights under the due process clause, where the Constitution seems to only state procedural rights. It is therefore hoped by many that the Supreme Court will “resurrect” the privileges or immunities clause as a source of substantive rights against the states, and perhaps take the offending substance out of the due process clause.

In anticipation of the Court's discussion of the privileges or immunities clause, commentators are discussing how this clause might and should be interpreted. In this connection, Christopher R. Green wrote McDonald v. Chicago, the Meaning-Application Distinction, and “Of” in the Privileges or Immunities Clause, which falls into the textualist trap by claiming that the controversy about the meaning of the privileges or immunities clause is a controversy over the meaning of the word “of.”

What is the controversy over the meaning of the privileges or immunities clause? Green presents the following as some of the possible (and plausible) interpretations of “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

a. Rights “'which owe their existence to the Federal government, its National character, its Constitution, or its laws.'”

b. Rights “[p]ossessed under the Constitution against the federal government by” citizens of United States.

c. Rights “[g]enerally possessed under state constitutions, statutes and common law by” citizens of the United States.

d. Rights “[g]enerally possessed in 1868 under state constitutions, statutes and common law by” citizens of the United States.

e. Rights “[p]ossessed as a matter of natural right by” citizens of the United States.

f. Rights “[p]ossessed locally by” citizens of the United States.

The controversy is therefore not about whether “privileges or immunities” refers to something other than rights; it is over what “rights” means in this context, and specifically, in Green's words, “the relationship that a right must bear to 'citizens of the United States' to count.” He then continues, “[W]hich is to say, over the meaning of 'of',” which, I argue, is where he errs.

Green's argument can be presented as follows:

1.The phrase “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” has several plausible interpretations, and its meaning is controversial.

2.Therefore it is ambiguous.

3.If a sentence is ambiguous, one of its components must be ambiguous.

4.The meaning of “privileges or immunities” is uncontroversial. It means “rights.”

5.The meaning of “citizens of the United States” is also uncontroversial.

6.The only leftover text is “of.” Therefore the ambiguity is in the word “of.”

Green thus falls into the textualist trap by using a sensible-seeming principle: when you have eliminated the uncontentious, whatever remains, however semantically empty, must be the source of contention. The problem is that eliminating all the text but one word doesn't just leave the one word. Under the SCAT hypothesis, It leaves one word plus all of the invisible, non-text components of meaning: the structure and context.

I would locate the ambiguity not in the word “of” but in the context. “Right” is a modal word, and modals are notoriously dependent on context for their meaning. “Right” is modal because whether something is a right or not must be resolved by reference to possibility, rather than the actual world. You can't tell if something is a right by determining whether someone does it, since rights don't have to be exercised. Philosophers and semanticists model modals using possible worlds, so that something is possible if it happens in some possible world with the relevant characteristics, and something is necessary if it happens in every possible world with the relevant characteristics. The indeterminacy of the privileges and immunities clause arises from what the relevant characteristics are in the set of possible worlds that we consider when evaluating the word “right.”

That may sound circular, but it is actually not. The semantic meaning of the word “right,” if I'm theorizing it correctly, is a function which (in essence) takes as an input an individual X and an action E, and returns the value “TRUE” if and only if there is a world W in which X does E, and W is in a certain set of possible worlds. The particular meaning of “right” will emerge from the choice of sets of worlds. Green's meaning 1, above, might pick out the set {w1, w2, w3}, where the w's represent possible worlds, while his meaning 2 might pick out {w1, w2, w3, w4}. The word “rights” doesn't show up at this level - it is inherent in the set; and the different possible meanings for “right” are the criteria by which the membership in the sets is picked out.

The alternative, that “of” is many ways ambiguous, just doesn't work. We all have the intuition that “of” has little, if any, semantic content. I know of no evidence that “of” is modal, so it is not possible to blame the indeterminacy of the privileges or immunities clause on a function that selects possible worlds for placement in a set, as we can do with “right.” If “of” means anything, it might mean something like “a function from a whole to the set of its parts,” which at least accounts for one type of phrase containing “of” - the type seen in “three of the boys.”

More likely, “of” is just like the pleonastics “it” and “there,” which are believed to carry no meaning in sentences like “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” and “there lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode.” “Of” is probably just a placeholder like the other pleonastics, which must be vocalized for syntactic or morphological or phonological reasons, but which contribute no meaning of their own.

None of this is to pick on Green, who appears, unlike some jurists who write about language, to have some sophistication in the subject. Nor is it to disagree with his conclusions about what the plausible interpretations of the privileges or immunities clause are, or about his conclusion of which interpretations are the best options – topics I am not competent to broach. I wrote this post simply to illustrate the textualist fallacy, and I used Green's paper as illustration because I happened to have recently read it. And the fact that someone like Green can fall for the textualist fallacy suggests that everyone should be on the alert for it.