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The Legacy of Anglo-American Textualism



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Textualism is the doctrine of statutory interpretation propounded by a small group of US federal court judges, including the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Whilst the doctrine has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, few have considered its historical development. In this dissertation, textualism is analysed in order to uncover the core principles and sets of rules from which it is comprised. Then, the development of these principles and sets of rules is traced back through the treatises on statutory interpretation published in England and America in the Victorian era, which were well-known to and frequently cited by Justice Scalia. Textualism is revealed to be an Anglo-American doctrine that emerged over the course of the nineteenth century; and it was made explicit in the treatises on statutory interpretation, which developed via a transatlantic scholarly dialogue. The doctrine fell out of favour in the US as the nineteenth century drew to a close; and around the same time, the rule prohibiting recourse to legislative history, a core feature of textualism, became subject to significant judicial challenge in England. The matter was resolved by a landmark decision in 1906, after which time the doctrine became firmly entrenched in England until approximately the 1980s. Textualism’s long tenure in England demonstrates how a doctrinal common law theory typical of the late Victorian era persisted for more than a century despite variations in judicial application of the rules from which the doctrine is comprised, criticism from within the legal community, and significant social change over time. The modern US revival of this doctrine is further testament to textualism’s tenacity. Whilst many scholars have found the doctrine to be problematic, it has remained attractive to common law judges from the time of its emergence in the middle of the nineteenth century through to the present. This is so because textualism was developed and refined through doctrinal legal scholarship, and as a result, it is consistent with traditional common law modes of reasoning, and it is tailor-made to meet the needs of judges deciding cases.





Bell, John


textualism, statutory interpretation, Scalia


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge